The Tale of the Mistranslated Word That Almost Resulted in a Deportation

If you are an individual, or an attorney, that is currently translating foreign language documents into English to present as evidence for an immigration case, please read this.

I recently interpreted for a deportation hearing in Immigration Court. This was the respondent’s third appearance or so. The judge wanted to clarify some conflicting information from her testimony in court and her written declaration, which is the written document that the alien writes in his or her native language and has it translated to be entered as the evidence, which explains his or her claim for asylum, or any other immigration application. What I’m trying to say is that this is one of the most important documents that are presented to the judge. Let me say that again: sometimes the affidavit, or declaration, is taken as the actual testimony in a deportation hearing, meaning, the applicant may not even be asked to testify once the judge reads the declaration. If this is the case, whatever was translated is what counts. Can we agree now on how important this document is? Great! allow me to continue, then.

On this specific trial, there was a conflicting word that the applicant said differently in her testimony in person than what was on the written document, the infamous declaration (I know, just one word? How bad can that be? But, I promise you, it was an important word). I cannot share all the details here, due to confidentiality, but let me just say that the applicant was looking like a liar. Not good. If the judge suspects someone is lying, there is no way the application will be granted.

The trial continued and the judge asked the respondent, over and over, why she was saying something different from what she had written down on her declaration. Luckily, and I cannot stress enough how much this situation was credited to luck, the judge spoke some Spanish. He was smart enough to read the Spanish affidavit, written by the applicant, and compared the conflicting word to the English translation. It was a mistranslation. It was a pretty bad one too. He was furious. He asked the respondent’s attorney to ensure they never used the same translator and advised that, had he not caught the mistranslation himself, he would have determined that the applicant was, in fact, lying. Whew! I was sweating in my seat! But, even better, the judge turned to me and asked me, as the interpreter, to confirm the correct translation for the Spanish word into English, which I was able to confirm and ensure that it was indeed mistranslated in the document entered as evidence.

Can you imagine being ordered removed from this country because a translator made an error in one word? one word! one very short word risked this person’s entire future.

Before I continue, I also need to defend my colleagues here. We all make mistakes. Yes, we are human. Machine translations have not and will not ever replace us. Sometimes there is more than one simple way to translate a word. However, this was not the case. The mistranslation on this declaration was due to laziness, lack of attention, lack of preparation, lack of experience…not sure which, but it was one of those reasons. This word had only one equivalent word in English, and it was badly missed.

So, dear attorneys and aliens that are translating affidavits from any foreign language into English, please, pretty please, hire an experienced and certified translator. Hire a professional that is an expert in the legal and immigration fields because, unlike untrained translator, we get it. We know how much these affidavits, police reports, newsletters, and other documents matter. We know such documents alone can build a solid immigration case. Hire the professionals. Hire wisely.