Criminal Defense of Immigrants


§ 4.20 1. Language and Dialect

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The interpreter’s language skills should match the defendant’s native or “first” language.  Use of an interpreter for the defendant’s second language, rather than his primary native tongue, poses serious risks of inaccurate translation.[55]


                Andrew Dalby’s Dictionary of Languages[56] is a concise, alphabetical summary of more than 400 world languages.  Each entry includes the geographical area in which the language is spoken, as well as an estimate of the size of the population of its native “mother tongue” speakers.  Some entries also have historical background information and specify the various dialects of the language, while others provide maps of the region, and other basic information on each language.


                One of the most important aspects of choosing the appropriate interpreter for your client is taking into consideration the geographical and cultural dynamics of the language and the region of the world in which it is spoken.  With a non-English speaking client, we must establish the exact native language and dialect.  Let’s say, for example, that your client speaks Urdu.  Page 663 of Dalby’s guide states that Urdu is native to roughly 40,000,000 people in India and Pakistan.  Urdu has various religious and social ties within both nations that could potentially complicate the dynamics between the client and the interpreter if they belong to different groups with a history of tension between them.  Also of note is the relation Dalby establishes between Urdu and the Hindi language.  It is important to know of similar or root languages, especially when faced with insufficient or inadequate interpreting resources.

[55] Ememe v. Ashcroft, 358 F.3d 446 (7th Cir. Feb. 12, 2004) (remand to immigration judge to determine ability to comprehend questioning at credible fear interview where native Amheric language speaker’s interview was conducted in speaker’s second language, Italian; such issue goes to resolution of not-directly-contradictory inconsistencies between credible fear interview and asylum hearing); see also He v. Ashcroft, 328 F.3d 593, 598 (9th Cir. 2003) (“faulty or unreliable translations can undermine the evidence on which an adverse credibility determination is based”).

[56] A. Dalby, Dictionary of Languages (Columbia University Press 2004).