Lost in Translation

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

"I just don't think that politics ought to determine whether we have competent interpreters in our courtrooms," says Lana McDaniel, who, as presiding felony judge for Dallas County, handles administrative tasks for her fellow judges. Since last February, when she became presiding judge, she has, in her own words, made it her "top priority" to do something about what she perceives as the poor quality of translations provided by Tizoc's. Because of a number of translator errors that have resulted in mistrials, several Dallas County judges refuse to use Tizoc's and rely instead on independent contractors. The independents, meanwhile, say that Galindo is pressuring the county not to pay them a fair rate. "He's trying to run us all out of business," independent translator Lourie Reyes says.

Galindo denies that he wants to put his competitors out of business and insists that Tizoc's provides superior-quality translations. "I'll put my company up against anybody," he says. And he has a few counter-charges of his own. "I have come to the conclusion that [with] certain judges, it's just the institutional racism," he says. "They don't mind using one individual interpreter. But the moment that a minority company begins to grow a little, it seems to me that they don't [want to see it]." Galindo says that the judges' preference for independent translators is a "divide-and-conquer" tactic to keep his minority business from gaining strength. "I'm quite confident that if it was an Anglo company, they wouldn't be doing that to us."

The battle over the quality of state court translators has been quietly growing over the last year, moving from the courthouse to the commissioners court to the county auditor's office to the state Legislature, and recently to a subcommittee of the Texas Judicial Council, a state agency that recommends improvements to Texas courts. Incompetence, influence-peddling, and racism aren't the only charges flying around. The Dallas Observer was able to find several irregularities in Tizoc's invoices submitted to the county.

Yet at its regular session last week, the Dallas County Commissioners Court awarded Tizoc's another contract to provide translation services--and at significantly increased hourly rates. The question is, Why?

There are three matters on which everyone agrees. One, translating in criminal court proceedings is one of the toughest, most demanding jobs anyone can have. "I'll be honest with you. Not everybody has the experience [to translate] in the legal [field]," Galindo says. "It's not so much a question of language ability, but the procedure."

Says Reyes, "It's not true that just because you speak the language you can translate." A 45-year-old who emigrated from Cuba as a child, Reyes holds a master's degree from SMU and is one of the independent translators most in demand at the courthouse. Reyes used to work for Galindo, but she left in 1996. (Galindo says she was fired; Reyes says she quit after Galindo asked her to double bill the county for her time.)

Two, everyone recognizes that as the Hispanic population of Dallas County increases, the demand for translation services in its courts is only going to grow. Last year, the county received more than 2,500 calls for translators in its courts and hospital facilities. Of those, some 91 percent were for Spanish translators. According to the Census Bureau, in 1990 the population of Dallas County was 14.5 percent Hispanic; by 1996, it had climbed to 20 percent. The Texas State Data Center at Texas A&M University projects that by 2030, Hispanics will make up somewhere between 28 percent and 50 percent of Dallas County's population.

"We're just going to have more and more Spanish-speaking defendants, Spanish-speaking witnesses," McDaniel says. Consequently, she is among several lawyers and jurists who are lobbying the Legislature and the Texas Supreme Court to adopt minimum competency standards for interpreters--something the Legislature has so far declined to do. Despite having the second-largest Hispanic population of any state, Texas is among the 31 states that make no attempt to ascertain the competency of court translators. There have been several tries to pass such legislation, most recently in 1995, but to no avail. "The argument in smaller counties is that certification will drive up costs, and they won't be able to use the janitor down at the school anymore," says McDaniel, who recently returned from a trip to Austin to try, once more, to get a bill introduced this session.

The need for standards is the third area of agreement among combatants. "I even told some friends--I told the state legislators--that we need to look at maybe getting a certification program from the state," Galindo says.

Since 1978, the federal courts have required translators to pass a certification exam. The federal exam is widely acknowledged to be difficult, with passage rates in the single digits. Certified federal court interpreters are paid around $280 a day. (None of the interpreters currently working in the Dallas County state courts has passed the federal exam.)

Likewise, since 1994, California, the state with the largest Hispanic population, has required its court interpreters to pass a rigorous set of examinations in eight language categories. Opponents of the certification requirement argued that the costs of interpretation services would skyrocket, but that has not happened, according to a spokeswoman for the California Judicial Council. Indeed, according to the council, which oversees the certification program, interpreter rates vary from $75 to $210 a day--often less than Dallas County pays its untested translators.

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