Longform

Lost in Translation

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Moreover, during September and October 1998--a period that included hundreds of jail calls--Tizoc's met its 30-minute guaranteed response time less than half the time. Delays of six or more hours between the time Tizoc's was called and the time an interpreter arrived were not unusual.

Nevertheless, Galindo insists his company is providing superior service to the county. "On Spanish, we don't have a problem," Galindo says. "I think that response-time kink is out. But we're human. We may make a mistake now and then."

In response to the judges' survey, Galindo dashed off a four-page letter last June to the commissioners. He argued that the survey was incomplete, that it was unfairly skewed, and that no one other than an "expert" was competent to question his translators. He laid his problems squarely at the feet of the independent interpreters.

"Tizoc's feels very strongly that several independent interpreters have been slandering our interpreters' performance to DAs, yet at the same time these independent interpreters are mentioned by several judges in a very negative manner and given poor reviews," he wrote. (Galindo didn't respond to the Observer's request that he elaborate on this allegation.) "These same interpreters have been lobbying key court staff to increase their fee scale. This could pose serious problems to the county if this lobbying produces increased costs for the taxpayer due to political lobbying and cronyism."

In fairness, it isn't clear that the independent interpreters' jail response times would be any better were the sheriff's department able to use independents. Nor are the independent translators certified. And when the county purchasing department sent out requests for bids last fall, Tizoc's increased its rates by 50 percent and still underbid the next-lowest bidder, The Foreign Language Center, by at least $30 an hour in all language categories--a significant margin.

A look at Galindo's roster of translators explains, in part, how he's able to do it. Though Galindo declined to provide his interpreters' resumes, his list of names submitted to the county shows that of 21 Spanish-speaking interpreters, six are Galindo's relatives. (Three are nieces just out of high school.) At least four are moonlighting DISD administrators--an interesting aspect, since Galindo has billed for one assistant principal on at least eight occasions when, according to a DISD spokesman, the administrator was supposed to be at school. In the past, his roster of interpreters has included some with little knowledge of the American legal system--an illegal alien, for example--and some with firsthand knowledge of the justice system, such as a former felon.

Still, his services are priced right. And for this last reason, Galindo couldn't have a more receptive audience than the Dallas County commissioners, who have long been embroiled in a power struggle with the judges, whom they have from time to time accused of being spendthrifts.

"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.'"

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Christine Biederman