Freedom, life, or reputation at stake: Accuracy in interpretation

One of the main reasons to have a translator or an interpreter in any given situation is to ensure communication and understanding between the two or more parties trying to engage each other. Due to the fact that the basic component of common language is missing during such interactions, people rely on a competent language professional to be able to serve as that essential conduit for messages during the exchange.

In many ways, the interpreter or translator substitutes the common language, and as such, accuracy and completeness in his or her work must be absolute. In the judiciary context, we are talking about using an interpreter or translator to ensure “equal access to justice”. In such cases, it is not only a matter of a cultural misunderstanding or an awkward pause in conversation due to an inaccurate interpretation: it could cost someone their freedom, their reputation, their immigration status, their property, and if serious enough, it could cost them their life.

Certain modes of interpreting, such as simultaneous, may pose more of a challenge to the interpreter in matters of maintaining accuracy and completeness. At that moment, the interpreter’s brain is doing many things at once: listening to the source language and understanding what the source is saying, interpreting the meaning, rearranging sentence structures and searching for accurate vocabulary terms, sometimes taking notes of numbers or names, remembering and then producing the interpretation, all while trying to keep up with the source speaker. But despite these challenging tasks, interpreters hired to work in the judiciary area should be trained enough and competent enough to handle the work. It can be humbling for an interpreter to stop a proceeding to state that he or she missed something, or needs clarification of a term, but it is better – and more ethical – to do this, than to risk rendering an inaccurate or incomplete interpretation.

Inaccurate, incomplete or incompetent interpretations can have and have had nearly irreparable consequences in people’s lives. Two news reports around this issue stand out.

In 2011, in Canada, Samirah Mohamed Neheid, a 50-year-old Kenyan national, was seeking refugee status due to political persecution, and needed a Swahili interpreter for her immigration hearing. According to the National Post article, Neheid’s hearing “sunk” due to a botched interpretation on the part of her interpreter. Throughout the hearing, the interpreter missed or misinterpreted very large portions of information that was important to Neheid’s case, sometimes making no sense at all. At one point, Neheid had testified that sometimes her son would come back home with protest signs and opposition posters, and the interpreter said “sometimes he would come with postage”.

Neheid was almost deported to Kenya, where her life would have been at risk, due to this terrible and inaccurate interpretation. After consulting with language experts and other interpreters who attested to the fact that the interpreter was incompetent and had “butchered” the interpretation, Neheid was able to appeal her case and her deportation order was overturned.

Interpretation is the first step: Interpreters are not cultural brokers

Oftentimes, accurate interpretation is just the basic first step in someone’s situation, while the figure of a “cultural broker” must also be in play. Interpreters and “cultural brokers” should ideally not be the same person, as acting as a “cultural broker” could infringe upon the code of ethics.

More recently, in Des Moines, Sui Hlei Cuai, a Burmese refugee, lost parental rights to her children due, in part, to having an interpreter who was not competent in her dialect. Not having a cultural broker to discuss Western parenting and convey mutual understanding of laws and obligations, coupled with accurate interpretation of these procedures, was also a factor in the termination of parental rights.

While this may not be so often the case for Spanish-speakers, since there are more available interpreters for this language, this is a serious situation occurring with new refugees seeking safety in Iowa, as well as with new immigrants from indigenous communities in Central America and Mexico, whose first language is not Spanish.

According to the news report, the miscommunication was so bad that, even though Cuai had been complying with all orders from the Department of Human Services to be reunited with her kids after being a victim of domestic violence, soon, a court was terminating Cuai’s parental rights. Cuai realized this very late in the process. The court terminated Cuai’s rights, but the decision was appealed, thanks to the intervention of many advocates and agencies such as Monsoon United Asian Women of Iowa, who acted as cultural brokers and highlighted the issue of interpretation in the court case. Eventually, Cuai got her kids back, and is now becoming reacquainted with them.

Though both cases had a positive ending, each shows the importance of having a competent, ethical language professional ensuring the accuracy and completeness of testimonies and information. Each of these limited-English-proficiency individuals almost paid serious consequences due to inaccuracies or incompetent interpretation. As interpreters and translators, these cases must be front and center in our practice and training, as we provide a vital service to the community.


Published by vcmarcano

Vanessa C. Marcano-Kelly is a native of Caracas, Venezuela. She is a certified court interpreter in Iowa and a translator. She is a member of the Iowa Interpreters and Translators' Association and the Midwest Association of Translators and Interpreters, with significant experience in community interpreting, translation, and journalism in English and Spanish. Vanessa has interpreted in community meetings with the Polk County Sheriff, the US Department of Labor, former US Congressman Tom Latham, and at the Food Sovereignty Prize 2014 in Des Moines. She graduated with honors with a BA in Global Studies and French from South Dakota State University, and received a judiciary interpretation and translation specialization certificate from Des Moines Area Community College. She works as a court interpreter in the Des Moines metro, and as a translator for Principal Financial Group, a Fortune 500 company. She has written for several publications, including the Venezuelan magazine Estetica y Salud, and has a passion for linguistics/languages, photography, community involvement, healthier living and travel. Vanessa runs a bilingual, bicultural household with her husband, Michael. Her immediate family lives in Venezuela, Lithuania and the US.

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