Lost in Translation

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

"Let's just be frank," said Commissioner Jim Jackson at one of the half-dozen commissioners meetings in which court translators were discussed. "We've all seen some of these judges go a little crazy. There was the family court judge that ran up $700,000 in psychiatric evaluations. And the criminal court judge who paid a million in court appointments to a friend of his."

The Dallas County purchasing department went back and forth, trying to mediate between the commissioners and the judges. When it sent out new requests for bids last September, it built in some stiff new requirements. Among them was a provision that if Tizoc's failed to respond, the county could call the second-lowest bidder and charge back the difference in rates to Tizoc's. But Tizoc's won a few sweetened provisions too--among them a two-hour minimum charge and a two-hour window for emergency calls.

The purchasing department tried to throw a bone to the judges as well, recommending that Tizoc's new bid be approved but that the daily rate for independents be raised to $200 a day.

But the commissioners weren't biting. Last week, they approved Tizoc's new contract at the higher rates and tabled any discussion of raising the independents' rates.

Meanwhile, last November, Angel Santiago Curiel went to trial again with an independent translator. This time around, the jury heard his version of events and sentenced him to 40 years in prison.

Monico Rodriguez, in turn, got his chance to translate in another murder case last December. This time, he got to the second day before the judge, Molly Francis, ordered the jury out.

Turning to Rodriguez, Francis pointed out the error. "When he [the witness] said...'Do you know Arturo Arellano [the deceased]?', he [the witness] said '[Arturo] is my good friend.' And you said 'friend.'"

Rodriguez began to argue. "I believe he said..."
But Francis was in no mood to hear it. "I heard him say 'good friend,' and you interpreted 'friend,' and I have got some problems with proceeding with the interpretation as is."

"The question was, 'How do you know the deceased?'" defense attorney Brook Busbee recalls. "And the guy on the stand was the one who was trying to put it [the murder] on my client--so the jury needed to understand the motivation."

Francis agreed--although this time, she didn't dismiss the jury. Instead, she dismissed the interpreter and called an independent translator to finish the job. And she made a record for later use. "We have got to have absolute confidence in these interpreters, or the proceedings are a joke," Francis said. "We might as well not even be here."

A few hours later, Guillermo Galindo was there, defending his interpreter and his company.

"He said, 'You should have called me at once,'" Francis says. "And I said, 'For heaven's sake, we were in the middle of a jury trial.'"

"The defense lawyer admitted that [all] she knows [is] street Spanish," says Galindo, who insists his translator was not at fault in the second case either. "I went to see the judge because I was concerned. And because, look, if Monico was wrong, I want to correct [it]. Monico asked the defendant afterward and asked the witness that was there, and they said both of them said [he] was [not] wrong. And the judge didn't pay any attention to that. So I have come to the conclusion that certain judges--it's just the institutional racism.

"This is again what I see, what I call the institutional racism--the divide and conquer...What gets me is that all these people who are freelancers have gone through me. You know, and the reason I fired them, two of them, they never could make it on time," Galindo says.

But many courthouse regulars question Galindo's charges.
"Look. I don't care if they're independent or if they're from Tizoc's," says Busbee. "Hell, I don't even care if they're a member of the Communist Party. I just want them to get it right.

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