Lost in Translation

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

Beyond these three items, however, the parties see eye-to-eye on little else--not even when the current imbroglio began. "About four years ago, I was able to win the [county] contract," Galindo says. "And up until a year ago, I thought we were doing great."

A charming man, well educated and well spoken in five languages, Galindo has been a prominent Hispanic community activist for a quarter century. He has run unsuccessfully several times for various local offices, from the Dallas school board to the city council, and has held a number of high-profile positions, including service on the city parks board and as president of SER, a federally funded job training program. He also led a number of community organizations, from Los Barrios Unidos to the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce. "I think he's a very influential individual," says former city councilman and state Rep. Domingo Garcia, who has in the past worked closely with Galindo on issues of importance in the Hispanic community. "I've seen him change over the years from a grassroots activist to more of a mainstream fighter for economic parity for Latinos."

Unfortunately, Galindo has a tendency to make assertions that turn out to be less than true.

"We knew we had certain complaints," he says, "because some judges who knew me would call me and say, 'Guillermo, you know, your interpreter was late.' And, you know, we'd get in it. But then all of a sudden, I am stunned...I go to the courthouse--I think it was last November--and I am stunned by the negative feedback I am getting from [Lana McDaniel]."

Actually, when McDaniel took the reins last year, she inherited a problem that had been brewing for some time.

"I have seen it [bad court translations] for many years," detective Trevino says, "and I have seen the unfortunate occurrences there [in the courts]. I don't know why, because there are plenty of qualified Spanish translators in Dallas County."

County Commissioner Jim Jackson says the problem has been going on at least since 1995, when Tizoc's contract was awarded. News reports from '95 detail Tizoc's-related mistrials. Yet the exact number of mistrials, let alone complaints, is hard to pin down. Defense attorneys recall several mistrials caused by Tizoc's mistranslation and many more incidents in which Tizoc's employees were dismissed from court proceedings because of translation problems. (Galindo insists that in four years, he's had "only 18" complaints, and that most of those were about interpreters being late.)

In a 1995 case, visiting Judge Bill Stephens declared a mistrial in a capital murder case after a Spanish-speaking juror complained that the interpreter was not being sufficiently precise in her translations. According to news reports, the Tizoc's interpreter was freely paraphrasing important bits of testimony--for example, saying that the witness saw someone "hit" when the witness had stated that she saw someone "shot." The articles quoted Guillermo Galindo as questioning the juror's language skills. Galindo also stated that he was worried that "[a]s a minority contractor, it [the mistrial] makes me look bad."

By December 1997, the grousing about Tizoc's had become so loud that McDaniel's predecessor as presiding felony judge, Keith Dean, asked the county purchasing department to undertake a survey rating Tizoc's services. Respondents were asked to mark Tizoc's from one to five, one being "unsatisfactory," five being "excellent," and three being "average." Tizoc's received an overall rating of 2.86--somewhere between "average" and "needs improvement." A number of respondents included unflattering anecdotes about various Tizoc's translators, including Galindo himself.

Armed with the survey and tales of interpreter mishaps, in February 1998, McDaniel and fellow Judge Vickers Cunningham briefed the Dallas County commissioners about the problems they had encountered with Tizoc's. There was something specific they wanted from the county. Since a 1979 law was passed by the Legislature, state judges can pay only $100 a day to independent court interpreters. The statute--an odd bit of legislative-judicial branch mistrust aimed at preventing kickbacks between judges and translators--may once have provided interpreters a living wage. But 20 years later, it meant that independent translators were capped at just over $12 an hour. By way of comparison, under its 1995 contract with the county, Tizoc's received between $25 and $35 an hour for Spanish translation, and $35 to $45 an hour for other languages. In other words, the judges were free to hire the interpreters they wanted--so long as the independent contractors were willing to work for much less than the Tizoc's translators.

The statute provided an exception, however. County commissioners could allow the judges to pay their chosen translators a higher wage. The judges were simply asking the commissioners to let them to pay their independent interpreters the same rates the county paid Galindo's translators. "I speak on behalf of my fellow judges," McDaniel told the commissioners in February '98. "We have had problems with Tizoc's, the language service that is currently being used by the county...that has forced me and many of the other judges to rely on individuals, independent interpreters who we have known to be competent and who give quality interpretation in our courts. And the problem is, under the current situation, those people cannot make more than $100 a day."

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