Thursday, February 12, 2009

Defendant Failed to Demonstrate He Was Prejudiced by Poor Translation at Trial

In People v. Singleton, the defendant was charged with robbery and burglary in the first degree. The victim only spoke an East Indian dialect called Gujarati. The interpreters used for Mr. Singleton's trial were not able to properly translate the testimony into English. Although the appellate division did not recount the first two interpreters' errors in its decision, the facts are available in the appellant's brief (all briefs are on file at the appellate division library). For example, the interpreters made the following errors:
  • speaking when the witness had said nothing;
  • listening while the attorneys spoke but not interpreting for the witness;
  • engaged in un-translated discussions with the witnesses;
  • summarizing testimony rather than precisely translating.
Moreover, the each interpreter had only a crude grasp of English. For example, when explaining his abilities, the first interpreter said "It’s not to have to wait a long time so, you know, I can translate... Few words and then I will be able to start, continue to doing that." When the court asked the interpreter what language he was interpreting, the interpreter gave his name. The interpreter admitted that he may have made errors in translation during testimony, including some that were apparent from the record. The interpreters' performance seem to violate most established standards of ethics for interpreters. On this record, the appellate division held that:
"We conclude that the court did not err in refusing to strike the testimony of the victim in question based upon the alleged inaccuracies in the second interpreter's translation. Although defendant established that there were some errors in that translation, he failed to establish that he "was prejudiced by those errors" (People v Dat Pham, 283 AD2d 952, lv denied 96 NY2d 900; see People v Restivo, 226 AD2d 1106, 1107, lv denied 88 NY2d 883). In any event, the record establishes that any errors were corrected either through objections made by defense counsel that were sustained by the court, or through defense counsel's cross-examination of the victim using the third and fourth interpreters (see Restivo, 226 AD2d at 1107)."
This case presents an interesting contrast to People v. Romeo, discussed below, wherein the court concluded that it was "highly likely" that the defendant was prejudiced by an extraordinary delay in proceeding to trial. It would seem to be exceedingly difficult for any attorney not fluent in Gujarati to explain exactly how a client was prejudiced by a poor interpretation. The Indignant Indigent believes that it is good practice for defense attorneys who find themselves in such a situation to insist on the record that it is impossible to know what sorts of prejudice have accrued to the defendant (in addition to arguing whatever prejudice can be gleaned from the poor interpretation).

Copy and paste this post here to have it translated into Gujarati.