Posted by: sbilingual | April 20, 2012

Arkansas Translation Error by Court Interpreter Leads to New Trial

A recently overturned conviction in Arkansas proves yet again the importance of accurate and professional court interpreters for legal proceedings.

Here’s what happened, according to the Times Record in Fort Smith, Arkansas:

Jose Luis Mendez was originally sentenced to 60 years in prison for rape, attempted murder, aggravated residential burglary and aggravated assault. Mendez’s conviction was based in part on his own statement in Spanish that he committed the crimes with which he was charged.

Both the prosecutor’s office and the defense prepared an English translation of the recorded interview, but came out with very different conclusions. During the interview, a detective asked Mendez if he grabbed his girlfriend by the neck. Mendez’s response according to the prosecution’s translation was, “I did that.” But according to the defense’s translation, Mendez responded, “I didn’t do that.” Obviously this difference was critical to the outcome of the case.

The judge admitted both translations as evidence, but left it up to the jury to decide which translation was more credible. The interpreters testified on the stand about their qualifications. The interpreter for the defense was certified for the state of Arkansas. The interpreter for the prosecutor’s office, however, had taken the qualification exam but failed it.

Later, a higher court disagreed with the trial judge’s decision to admit both translations, and demanded a new trial. The higher court justice explained that the issue should not have been submitted to the jury.

The Importance of Accuracy

This real story illustrates the importance of obtaining qualified translators and interpreters and the very serious consequences that may result in using an unqualified translator or interpreter. Courtroom interpreting as well as translation can be crucial to the outcome of a court case depending on the experience of the linguist. Poor interpreting or translation can cause prejudice in the courtroom.

Given this huge potential for bias it is of the utmost importance that words are beinginterpreted and translated as accurately as possible. The case in Arkansas turned on a crucial difference in translation, and ultimately led to a big loss of time and money.

Is a Certified Interpreter Necessary?

Although there is no nationwide standard for interpreter certification, some states require that interpreters be certified in order to perform in court. Arkansas, in particular, certifies legal interpreters and requires that they be used in Arkansas courts for criminal matters with the exception of misdemeanor and felony arraignments.

In the Arkansas case, it was deemed by the state supreme court that the uncertified interpreter’s work should have been thrown out and that the only translation that was admissible was that of the defense since the interpreter for the defense was certified through the state certification program (Mendez v. State, 2011 Ark. 536, Dec. 15, 2011).

The broader question, however, is whether a certified interpreter inherently has the optimal skill set to transcribe and translate a recorded statement in another language. Unless the certification process samples the ability of a linguist to correctly transcribe a recording in light of issues of dialect, audibility problems and the presence of multiple speakers, it does not necessarily follow that a good interpreter is a good transcriber.

Further, translation of written text is a substantially different skill set than interpreting oral conversation in a courtroom setting.

The assumption of the Arkansas Supreme Court that a certified interpreter would provide a better transcript and/or translation does not necessarily follow unless that certification has tested these other skills. An alternative resolution — and perhaps a better one — would have relied on expert witness testimony to review the different transcriptions and translations.

The stakes are very high in a courtroom setting, and accurate interpreting, transcription and translation are of paramount importance.

It is in the best interest of society to hire a professional interpreter, professional transcriber and/or professional translator since court proceedings require very specific skills and expertise.

To find out how Bilingual Resources Group can support your interpretation, translation and bilingual staffing needs, please call 504-253-0364 or visit


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