When It Takes Two Interpreters

by Translation Guy on June 21, 2010

Jeronimo Ramirez Martinez is accused of stabbing and dismembering his roommates with a grape knife in Madera, California earlier this year. But for reasons of language, any conviction could be easily challenged, according to Legal Analyst Tony Capozzi. Martinez speaks Trique, a Mixtecan language spoken by about 15,000 people in Oaxaca, Mexico. During proceedings, a Trique interpreter was required to interpret into Spanish, so that the Spanish court interpreter could interpret into English.

Capozzi says that could present serious problems. “With the two interpreters it will slow the trial. The other problem is if he’s convicted he has a wonderful ground for an appeal to have this case reversed by making the allegation that what [he] thought was going on in court [was] not what really happened.”

As Mexican migration to the US has increased in the last two decades, so has the number of non-Spanish-speaking Mexicans. From Mexico alone―home to Latin America’s largest indigenous population―there are now about 500,000 indigenous people in the United States, according to the Binational Center for the Development of Oaxacan Indigenous Communities (a number I suspect is actually a lot lower since the binational center has an indigenous axe to grind). Most are either Mixtec or Zapotec, from the southern Mexican states of Oaxaca, Guerrero, and Puebla, and for sure there are more in the US than there were before. Because these languages are non-literate and spoken by small isolated groups, dialects differ from hilltop to hilltop, further complicating the linguistic picture. Other Native American languages, such as Quechua (widely spoken in the Andes) and K’iche’ (a Guatemalan Mayan language) pose similar challenges.

If you’ve ever played the telephone game, you know how quickly meaning can change when a “whisper down the lane” is passed from person to person. Mix in Mixtec, and your communication problems really begin.

The only relay interpreting we do at 1-800-Translate is for some of these languages, and we hate doing it, since I’m afraid it changes the translation game to Translation Party, which is a silly Web app that uses Google MT to translate back and forth between English and Japanese until the translation comes back exactly the same way. For example, I just Translation Partied the first line of this post and got, “Naifumadera Jeronimoramiresumarutinesu, California, this year he stabbed the roommate responsible for dismembering the grapes.” Hopefully our relay interpreters manage a bit better than that, but it’s hard to say for sure.


  1. Qatar says:

    This reminded me of a similar situation where it took 2 interpreters to do one job: Sign Language Interpreter (doesn’t speak English) + Arabic/English interpreter (doesn’t know Sign Language) sitting in the same table between a Portuguese instructor who speaks English only and a group of deaf students who understand Arabic sign language only. What a complicated setting! I wonder how much was lost in translation!

  2. Ken says:

    Kashif, no problem for you to plug your translation service on our website, but you should check your Czech spelling. I’m pretty sure it’s not spelled “Check.” Its guys like you who keep guys like me in business. Thanks!

  3. Jennifer says:

    That’s a terrible crime and the story gets worse with some serious lacking in translation wow

  4. Tracy says:

    That guy is a serious scum bag, who cares what he has to say…

  5. Michelle says:

    Who knew that there were so many dialects/versions of mexican

LiveZilla Live Chat Software