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How a Mistranslation Can Ruin Your Case

By George Khoury, Esq. | Last updated on

It's a rare condition, in this day and age, that a non-English speaking litigant in a courtroom will get an unqualified translator. 

However, when it does happen, and it does happen, the consequences can be rather pronounced. Given the semantic nature of legal analysis, a case can be completely ruined due to the mistranslation of a single word.

Given that trial attorneys have to worry about how testimony given in English is transcribed and punctuated by a court reporter, attorneys should be doubly concerned about mistranslation compounding that problem even further. Despite the federal judiciary, years ago, taking the lead by example, as well as "motivating" states to provide better in court interpreters, the lack of qualified court interpreters is still staggering.

Assassination by Translation

A recent case that is just wrapping up illustrates the problem of mistranslation rather poignantly. The defendant is being charged in the seemingly random shooting death of an individual. While being questioned by police, investigators were making use of an interpreter. When the investigators asked if the defendant "pulled the trigger," the interpreter, not seeing a difference, asked if the defendant "fired the gun." The logicians might not see a difference, but any mildly obsessive and overly semantic attorney likely wishes they were dead and buried just so they could start turning over in their grave.

Though the defendant admits to firing the gun, he insists that it was an accident, that he didn't intend to pull trigger. Rather than pulling the trigger, the defense claims the trigger was accidentally hit. Relying on the statement the defendant made in interrogation through the interpreter, the prosecution asserted that the killing was intentional.

A Murder on Pier 39?

The defense claimed that the defendant found an item under the bench he was sitting on in San Francisco's Pier 39 (which is often mistaken for the city's iconic Fisherman's Wharf, yet still draws similar, if not larger, crowds). And while handling the wrapped object, which turned out to be a handgun, it went off accidentally, hitting the victim in the back. If true, this fact could lead to an acquittal on the second-degree murder charges, which requires, minimally, the intent to cause harm.

This case has seen quite a bit of media attention, but until now it was not for this translation matter. Rather, this case got quite a bit of attention due to the fact that the defendant had been deported multiple times, which, in turn, implicated the "sanctuary cities" debate.

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