Tucked next to the witness box, translating clunky, legalistic statements and tearful, impassioned testimony with equal speed, interpreters keep hundreds of trials moving through Los Angeles courts each day.
Usually, they remain invisible. But as usual, the usual does not apply in the O.J. Simpson double murder trial.
The normally unobtrusive role of court interpreter came under scrutiny Monday with challenges to Friday's translation of defense witness Rosa Lopez's Spanish-language testimony. After a long, private meeting with defense attorneys, Superior Court Judge Lance A. Ito on Monday replaced his court's longtime Mexican-born interpreter with a translator who shares Lopez's Salvadoran heritage.
Some sources said Ito was responding to angry calls from court-watchers across the country who complained that Friday's translation missed the mark. But several professional interpreters praised that translator, and the reason for the switch was unclear.
Even when interpreters translate testimony with unerring accuracy, their very presence subtly alters a trial's cadences.
They may relay emotional, stumbling testimony in a flat monotone--or may falter while translating a straightforward statement. They may destroy the rhythm of a lawyer's cross-examination. They may turn an ungrammatical string of curses into a bland expression of anger.
And of course, they may make mistakes.
"It's like playing telephone" and whispering a message from person to person, attorney Jill Lansing said. "We all know there are changes in content" as a phrase passes down the chain.
"(Interpreters) only need to be wrong on one question for it to be an issue," attorney James E. Blancarte said. "When someone's life is on the line, you can't afford to ignore the possibility of that one key question coming up."
A fluent Spanish speaker, Blancarte nonetheless relies on interpreters in court to avoid being drawn into a witness's testimony himself. The translators perform a vital job, he says--but their presence can be extremely frustrating.
Grilling a witness with hard-edged barbs or coaxing testimony with gentle jokes can be equally difficult, since all questions must pass through a third party.
"All the style and the drama of cross-examination is literally lost in translation," Blancarte complained. "You're losing all the impact, all the Perry Mason, 'L.A. Law' emotion. It (becomes) a very cold, clinical, matter-of-fact kind of examination."
Behind the scenes, using translators can be equally awkward. Attorneys often seek to relax clients and potential witnesses by making small talk, or by bantering with them. That's almost impossible using an interpreter.
In court, many interpreters see it as part of their job to convey the spirit as well as the literal meaning of a statement. If a witness is cagey or sarcastic or furious, the translator may try to mimic the tone. The first interpreter in the Simpson case, Doris Weitz, used this type of animated style Friday as she translated Lopez's responses to aggressive prosecution questioning.
Her replacement, Alicia Luper, used an even tone to repeat Lopez's statements under gentle questioning by defense attorney Johnnie L. Cochran Jr.
Several veteran court interpreters were mystified why Weitz, who was born and educated in Mexico, was replaced for Monday's videotaped testimony.
They noted only one error in her translations: When Lopez spoke of returning to her native El Salvador, she mentioned her rancho-- which Weitz translated as ranch. But among Salvadoran speakers, experts said, rancho connotes not a dusty cattle ranch, but a small rural town or hamlet.
That nuance could scarcely affect the trial--especially since Lopez's testimony Friday was conducted outside the jury's presence.
State law requires all Spanish-language court interpreters to pass a written certification exam. And they routinely take courses to brush up on slang and refresh their memory of linguistic differences between countries, translator Leslie Ortiz said.
But this proof of competency rarely deters complaints, as it failed to do in the Simpson case. Especially in Spanish translations, spectators, attorneys, judges and even jurors may cast doubt on the interpreter's choice of words based on their own sketchy knowledge of the language.
If a witness testified that a defendant liked to molestar her, for example, a listener could easily peg the suspect as a sexual molester. But molestar means simply "to bother," in a far less serious sense. Jurors who don't know the difference might take the more offensive meaning as gospel--and pass it on to their colleagues in the deliberation room.
Basic questions--such as "What time did you return home?"--hold up pretty well with Spanish speakers from all countries. But the details can get touchy.
The problem grows when listeners are unaware of the regional variations within a single language.
Translator Alexander Rainof recalled a federal case in which a defendant testified that he had "not even a kilo's" worth of drugs on him. That proclamation irked the judge, who railed that even minor caches of drugs are illegal. But in truth, the defendant meant that he was holding not a penny's worth of drugs--because, as the translator pointed out, kilo means cent in Cuban Spanish.
Just as Americans may refer to a root beer as a soda or a pop, just as a British resident may call a truck a lorry, so too do Spanish speakers sprinkle their speech with regional idiosyncrasies.
Nouns referring to foods, clothing and body parts tend to vary from region to region, said Carmen Silva-Corvalan, a professor of Spanish at USC. For instance, a witness from Central America reporting that she saw a man carrying a saco is most likely referring to a sack or paper bag. But the same sentence uttered by a Spaniard could mean that the man was toting a jacket.
Another classic example: The simple sentence "Yo esperaba la guagua" can mean "I was waiting for the bus" in Cuba or "I was pregnant" in Chile.
"It makes an immense difference," Rainof said.
Even native speakers, however, can make mistakes.
At one point Monday, Lopez--who has lived in the United States since 1969 and speaks some English--corrected her new, Salvadoran-born interpreter. Luper translated a phrase as: "I bent over . . . and closed the window." But Lopez jumped in, saying she had said curtain, not window.