Longform

Lost in Translation

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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."

Commissioner John Wiley Price was the first to interrupt. "I just want to make sure that this particular vendor has an opportunity to [see the evaluations]," Price said. He was also curious about whether McDaniel had personally given Galindo notice of the complaints.

Commissioner Ken Mayfield was the next to jump in. "I think the other point Commissioner Price is leading up to is...it may be possible to significantly improve the contract services and not just assume that it's unacceptable to the courts," he said.

McDaniel tried once more to explain why the services were, in fact, unacceptable. "Let me just say that, in my view, knowing the interpreter is everything," she began. "The effect of having quality interpreters goes beyond just the trial itself. It was because I had confidence in [an independent translator] that I recently had confidence in overruling a defendant's motion for new trial. The plea bargain was for 30 years, and the defendant claimed he understood he was only getting 15. And it was only because I had confidence in the interpreter and confidence in the Spanish-speaking defense lawyer that I had confidence overruling the motion for new trial."

McDaniel might as well have been speaking in Swahili; the commissioners' primary concern was protecting their vendor's business--ostensibly because that would protect the county's budget. "The argument is that unless you steer people toward the county contractor, their business may drop off, and it may not be worth their while," explains Jim Jackson, commissioner from Precinct 1. "Then your costs go up." At the meeting last February, Commissioner Price put it this way: "I guess my concern would be...if 84 percent of the courts' business [started] going to the independents, then the county's not going to get the other 16 percent at reasonable prices." (According to the Dallas County purchasing department, last year Dallas County spent $249,462 for translation services--87 percent of that in the criminal court system. Of that amount, some $172,496 went to Tizoc's, and an additional $76,966 was split among more than 30 independent translators.)

Mayfield chimed in with additional arguments why Tizoc's should get more than the independents. Unlike county contractors, whose services are bonded and who must maintain workers compensation and general liability insurance, the independents had no financial obligations to the county. Why shouldn't they be paid less?

Commissioners deny that Galindo's influence in the Hispanic community has anything to do with the matter. "Never heard of him. Who is he?" Jackson says.

"You can put, 'He laughed heartily,'" says Ken Mayfield, laughing heartily at the question. "I haven't heard that one." Mayfield says he is unconcerned about how this county contract could affect Hispanic voters. "There's nothing further from my mind or anyone else's. What it really has to do with is...keep[ing] the services as low as possible." Mayfield denies he's ever talked to Guillermo Galindo about this or any other issue. "Never heard of him," says Mayfield, echoing Jackson. What he does recall is that he wasn't particularly impressed with the evidence that the judges presented.

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Christine Biederman