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Hispanic court cases: the verdict is all in the translation

''!Hombre, ni tengo diez kilos!'' Those words, heard on tape in a New York courtroom, convicted a Cuban man on drug charges. But he happened to be innocent.

The man had been asked for a loan and replied, ''Man, I don't even have 10 cents!'' The courtroom interpreter translated the sentence as ''Man, I don't even have ten kilos'' - a measurement for drugs, and a sizable one.

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Fortunately, a more experienced interpreter familiar with the double meaning of the word later heard the testimony and helped overturn the conviction.

No one knows how often well-intentioned but incorrect translations of courtroom testimony lead to faulty convictions of non-English-speaking defendants in the United States. A slang word or subtle voice inflection, not properly conveyed to a judge or jury, can have tragic consequences. The incorrect translation of a lawyer's question to a Hispanic defendant or witness can create erroneous testimony which goes unnoticed and can never be retrieved (since the court transcripts are in English only).

In what they see as a major civil rights issue of the 1980s, two Boston women are fighting for proper treatment of Hispanics in the courts. Sarah Hart and Laura Eastment of Boston are two of only 196 court interpreters nationwide who have met the rigorous qualifications of the 1979 federal Court Interpreters' Act.

The two women passed the written and oral examination set up by the act and first administered in 1980. The act requires all translation of Hispanic testimony in federal courts to be performed by a certified interpreter. Although there are nearly 15 million Hispanics in the United States, only 23 states so far have their own certified interpreter. Sometimes qualified people have to be flown to other states, but more often judges are ignorant of the law, or choose to ignore it.

The situation in state and municipal courts is worse.

''A judge may just bring in a friend, the guy across the street, a student in Spanish,'' Ms. Eastment explains. ''Or he may just ask, 'Does anyone here speak Spanish?' ''

''And this is not just for criminal cases, robbery - it's for child custody, rape,'' she says. There are no certified interpreters, even on the federal level , for the more than 6 million Americans whose primary language is Asian, French, or Italian.

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Courtroom interpreting - when performed properly - is a grueling occupation. Ms. Hart and Ms. Eastment don't take their jobs lightly - and well they don't, since much is at stake. Ms. Hart's performance at a recent heroin smuggling case in a federal district court in Boston was impressive.

Her translation is simultaneous with the testimony. Each word spoken by everyone in the room must be conveyed verbatim to the defendant. In this case the two defendants, Jose and Pedro, both spoke some English, but requested an interpreter - probably a wise choice, since the legal courtroom lingo can be overwhelming even to English scholars. Judges have often been unsympathetic to Hispanics who appear to speak passable English, not stopping to consider that some words used in court appear less than three times in a million words of everyday English.

This judge was a pensive and patient man, unlike many who become numb from drug trial after drug trial. He spoke slowly and clearly. Nevertheless at one point banter between the judge and the prosecuting attorney began to fly so fast that Ms. Hart, braced between Jose and Pedro, heaved one huge breath and spewed out the words at an amazing speed. It is difficult to imagine how someone less skilled could have done justice to the spate of slang and legal garble.

The two men, picked up by federal Drug Enforcement Administration officials at Boston's Logan International Airport, had decided to plead guilty.

''Do you understand your rights as I have explained them?'' asked the judge.

''Yes,'' they answered, through Ms. Hart.

''Do you understand that you lose those rights if you enter a guilty plea?'' he continued.


''Are you confused by anything we have asked you?''

They shook their heads no, and the judge accepted the plea. Jose and Pedro now await sentencing of up to 15 years in jail and a $25,000 fine.

''You are him, really,'' says Laura Eastment. ''You feel his emotions . . . and you have to strike a balance between being mechanical and getting too involved.''

The communication problem reaches beyond the courtroom. Bilingual lawyers, police officers, and even prison guards are in short supply as well. Ms. Eastment recalls a court officer who was preparing a presentence recommendation on a Hispanic man. The officer was shocked when the man couldn't remember the names of his sisters' husbands during questioning. The report to the sentencing judge might have reflected the officer's misconception - that the man was irresponsible and uncaring - if Ms. Eastment hadn't intervened.

''I explained to him (the officer) that this was something common to that culture,'' Ms. Eastment says. ''That is not unusual at all, because there are such big families - you can't remember all the names.''

As is typical with judicial reform, progress comes in small steps. The two women's latest inroad was in the town of Salem, Mass., where up until recently the person responsible for appointing the courtroom interpreter was the local district attorney (a fairly common practice).

''Our judicial system is an adversary system,'' says Ms. Hart, ''and there's an inherent conflict of interest to have one side do the hiring for the opposing side.'' Eventually the town yielded to her request to turn the duty over to the town clerk.

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