Translation problems with police/Verzicht auf Rechte ohne ausreichende Übersetzung

The Daytona Beach newsjournal.online.com reports on a Spanish-speaking subject who is claimed to have waived his right to silence but says he didn’t understand everything that was said.

bq. Olmos was questioned at times by a Spanish-speaking police officer called out to be a translator, but investigators also asked him questions in English. Investigators say during those conversations Olmos waived his right to remain silent.
Olmos’ attorney and some experts say instead it’s likely the suspect didn’t understand what police were telling him and everything said to them that night should be thrown out of his murder trial.

Obviously, lawyers often claim that their clients did not understand what was happening, but in this case the argument is stronger than usual.

bq. Dr. Robert Sitler, a language professor at Stetson University, said that even in the rare case that a person is truly bilingual, unexpected switching of languages by interrogators would produce confusion.
“If the person’s brain expects to hear a particular language, words in another language, especially the first ones uttered, will often go unrecognized, even if the person is familiar with the words,” Sitler said.

Of course, the confession (which is quoted in detail) may be true. But the problem might have been avoided if an independent professional interpreter had been called in.

This follows an earlier case which I think I reported:

bq. Juan Ramon Alfonzo was sentenced to 15 years in prison in December 2004 after pleading no contest to what he understood through court-appointed translation to be for stealing a toolbox. It turned out the translation was botched and his plea was actually for stealing a dump truck.
A year later, Circuit Judge William Parsons reversed his sentence and after a retrial Alfonzo got a five-year sentence instead of the 15. The court-appointed interpreter was fired.
The case caught the eyes of Florida legislators, who passed a bill in May requiring court interpreters to be certified.

5 thoughts on “Translation problems with police/Verzicht auf Rechte ohne ausreichende Übersetzung

  1. Maybe even the Florida legislators can tell and legislate for the difference between a court interpreter and a court ‘translator’ – a novel idea of a transcriber- or PC-bound, lightning-fast typist. Certainly the distinction is lost in the extracts reported.

  2. I didn’t think you were German. I mentioned that colleague as an illustration of someone else who feels possessive about her first language, an attitude that’s a bit weird to me once you’re comfortable in another.

  3. Ah! Now I understand the last bit. I don’t know what you mean about ‘possessive’ – perhaps you wanted me to say ‘my language’ instead of ‘our’? I am a translator into English, so yes, I call myself a native speaker, whatever others may think!

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