Lost in Translation

Dallas judges say unqualified Spanish translators are hindering the course of justice, but county commissioners are hearing another story altogether

Liquor led to argument, argument to guns, and guns to murder. It began in the wee hours of October 9, 1997, at El Que Paso on South Lamar Street, one of the dozens of bars that draw lonely Hispanic men to the shadows of southern Dallas' freeway underpasses. Angel Santiago Curiel, the 47-year-old overseer of a small ranch just south of Dallas, had come to town to have a drink with his brother-in-law, and he stayed to have six or seven.

Around 1:30 a.m., Santiago and his brother-in-law headed for the door. According to trial testimony, they were halfway to their trucks when Santiago realized he had left his smokes behind. He started back, only to be stopped at the door by a security guard, 27-year-old Eulalio Rodriguez.

Rodriguez insisted on frisking Santiago, who protested that he had just come out seconds before. The two men traded insults before Santiago consented to be searched and retrieved his cigarettes. When he emerged, the argument continued. According to the stilted prose of the police report filed a few hours later, "[t]he disturbance went from the front door of the club to...the suspect's vehicle, from which the suspect [Santiago] obtained a handgun and shot the complainant [Rodriguez] multiple times."

Eulalio Rodriguez died at Parkland Memorial Medical Center later that morning.

The state charged Angel Santiago Curiel with murder. At first, Santiago claimed that someone else shot Rodriguez; later, he admitted firing two slugs at him, but said he did it in fear for his life. The way Santiago told it, Eulalio Rodriguez was bad news. Uniformed and angry, Rodriguez had come after Santiago, trailing him to the parking lot, brandishing what Santiago said looked like a gun, and talking about what he was going to do to Santiago. (In fact, Rodriguez was carrying a canister of tear gas.) According to the defendant, Rodriguez punched him in the mouth and then drew his weapon. It was only then, Santiago said, that he grabbed his revolver and fired.

The state offered Santiago 15 years in prison in exchange for a guilty plea. He refused the deal. In a letter to state District Judge John Nelms, Santiago said he desperately wanted to "prove my innocents." He got his chance on November 10, 1998, when his case was called for trial.

Because several of the witnesses spoke only Spanish, the district attorney's office called Tizoc's Language Consultants. Since 1995, Tizoc's has contracted with the county to provide translation services for the courts and Parkland hospital, among other county agencies. Tizoc's dispatched Monico Rodriguez, a relatively new translator from its regular roster of approximately a dozen Spanish-speakers.

That's when the second fight began.
"The guy was misinterpreting things," recalls Al Campos, Santiago's court-appointed lawyer. Campos, who is fluent in Spanish, says he was appalled at the mistakes Monico Rodriguez was making. "The state had a bilingual attorney. We would both look at each other when [the interpreter] would do it...He was paraphrasing throughout."

Judge Nelms agrees. "He had his own separate trial going on," Nelms says. Like many Dallas County judges, Nelms, 64, takes Spanish classes, but does not consider himself fluent. Yet even with his limited language skills, Nelms says, he realized something was amiss.

Nelms soon halted the trial. "When I moved for a mistrial, I think my client stated he had been hit in the mouth, and he [the interpreter] was interpreting face," Campos says. "It was important, because there was a dispute [over whether Rodriguez slugged Santiago]." The state was prepared to point out that Santiago had no visible facial bruises or lacerations when he was arrested. "We arrested him the very next day, and he was clean," recalls Dallas police detective Jesus Trevino, who was in charge of the investigation.

Nelms declared a mistrial and dismissed Monico Rodriguez from court. That's when Guillermo Galindo, president of the Dallas Hispanic Chamber of Commerce and owner of Tizoc's, showed up.

"I went up there immediately," says Galindo, who has a reputation around the courthouse for aggressively defending his interpreters. "I went to the judge--Judge Nelms. And I went to him and said, 'I'd like to review the tapes'...And then we listened to the tapes, and I had other people listen to the tapes--other people that don't work for the company. We felt that there were no mistakes.

"One word. He said that the individual said, 'Hit me in the mouth,'" Galindo says. "And they alleged that he [the translator] said 'hit me in the face.' Nothing to change the context or the argument of the court. That's what really got me real angry...How do you differentiate between the face and the mouth?

"Now we're going to go to the court to get those tapes to transcribe, because I'm going to prove to the judge and I'm going to prove to that defense attorney that they were totally wrong to dismiss this interpreter. And secondly, if you're going to dismiss an expert witness, an expert individual, you bring another expert to disqualify that individual."

Despite Galindo's belief that he is right, many judges, defense lawyers, independent translators, and court and law-enforcement personnel have nothing good to say about Tizoc's. The way they portray it, Galindo hires poorly qualified translators, provides them little or no training, and flies into rages when they are questioned. Yet Galindo gets his county contract renewed, many allege, by commissioners more concerned about keeping court costs down--not to mention getting re-elected in an increasingly Hispanic Dallas County--than about the quality of justice provided.

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