As lawyers, many times we are faced with situations that demand our skills as advocates and sometimes as troubleshooters. And there are times we are faced with situations that require both. This is my “war” story.
I practiced law in Green Bay from 1997 to 2000. Most of my practice at the time dealt with family, traffic, and criminal law. One afternoon, I sat in Judge Zuidmulder’s hearing room in the third floor of the Brown County courthouse, waiting my turn to be called on a scheduling conference in a family law case. While I was waiting, an individual was brought in from the Brown County jail for his pleading hearing in a criminal matter. The gentleman, wearing the always fashionable orange jumpsuit, was accompanied by a translator I knew. The translator, originally from Central America, was well known in the courthouse and in my opinion always did a good job.
Micabil (Mike) Diaz-Martinez, Marquette 1989, is an attorney with the Wisconsin Department of Safety & Professional Services, Madison. He is the current president of the Wisconsin Hispanic Lawyers Association.
As the pleading hearing ensued and the defendant was ready to plead guilty, it was clear that something was not right. The translator and the defendant were having difficulties communicating during the discussion of the charges to be pled. Since I am a native Spanish speaker, I realized by his accent that the defendant was from Mexico.
As these two individuals kept arguing, Judge Zuidmulder appeared to grow more impatient, since this matter was taking longer than expected. It appeared that the case was based on an allegation that the defendant committed a battery against his girlfriend. But in the translation, the interpreter from Central America was using a word (asalto) that had a different meaning to the defendant from Mexico.
Although the word “asalto” in Spanish means assault in English, this word also means armed robbery in Mexico. Therefore the problem was that the interpreter, while translating the word assault, forgot rule number one when dealing with anyone: know the audience. The defendant was confused because to him he was now being asked to plead guilty to armed robbery.
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I asked Judge Zuidmulder if I could assist as a friend of the court. I approached the interpreter and the defendant and explained who I was and that I believed there was a problem with the translation. Once I explained the situation to the parties, I asked the defendant in Spanish, “Did you hit her? (¿La agrediste?),” at which point he said to me, “Si yo la golpee (Yes I did hit her).” Immediately upon hearing this, I turned to Judge Zuidmulder and said, “Your honor, I believe the defendant now understands the charge before him and is ready to enter a plea.”
Many years have passed since that incident happened in the Brown County courthouse. But that event reminds me every day of the important role we have as lawyers to intervene when our justice system, although well intentioned, sometimes fails. And I am reminded of the need for qualified interpreters who understand that language has many variations and meanings to people who on the surface appear to speak the same language.