Drug Slang Translation by Street Savvy Translators

Interpreting Drug Slang in Court Cases

Accurate legal interpreter services are important for the U.S. court system at large and for attorneys in particular.  In its decision in U.S. v. Verdin-Garcia, — F.3d —-, 2008 WL 435495 (10th Cir. Feb. 19, 2008) the court ruled that in order to translate drug slang, the translator does not have to be an expert in drug language code-cracking, as long as that translator has the street savvy to know that those terms refer to “marijuana usage and Quaaludes”.

The defendants, illegal immigrants from Nayarit, a western state in Mexico, were convicted of marijuana and methamphetamine trafficking conspiracies and related counts At trial, the government offered the testimony of an experienced Spanish-English translator. One of issues raised on appeal was that translations of wiretapped conversations were improper and should have been excluded.

The Appellants disagreed with the translator’s alternative interpretation of the recurring Spanish word jale as “work, gig, job, [or] dope.” E.g., Aplee’s App. Vol. I, exh. 155, at 4; Vol. II, exh. 235; Vol. III, exh. 440, at 1; Vol. IV, exh. 665. (It could also mean “snort [of cocaine],” but Ms. Gardner omitted that possibility at the government’s request because it might be objectionable as overly prejudicial. Appellants brought it out on cross, however.) Appellants argue that providing the possible meaning “dope” was not translation but rather code-language interpretation, for which they say Ms. Gardner was not qualified. However, they did not cross-examine Ms. Gardner on the word jale, or call their own translator.

Excerpt of published Appellate Court decision is below. The bold emphasis is ours.

A translator may “provide nonliteral translation” of “slang terms or idioms which are widely used and understood by the native speakers of the foreign language.” United States v. Gonzalez, 365 F.3d 656, 660 (8th Cir. 2004), vacated and remanded on other grounds, 543 U.S. 1107 (2005), previous opinion adopted in relevant part, 188 F. App’x 547, 548 n.2 (8th Cir. 2006). Terms like “420” and “714s,” for instance, do not require decoding or code-cracking to understand; it may take nothing but street savvy to know that they refer to marijuana usage and Quaaludes. Once foundation is laid that a translator has that savvy, her translation of drug slang is no more a matter of opinion than her translation of any other slang or idiomatic usage. Differences of opinion on the proper meaning or translation of a slang term are to be resolved–as with other disputes concerning translation–through cross-examination or by the presentation of another qualified translator with a contrary view.

In this case, Ms. Gardner testified that she was familiar with the Nayarit region of Mexico and with its slang, that she had received training on the slang terms of the various regions of Mexico, and that she had interpreted in numerous conversations involving natives of Nayarit. She testified specifically, “Well, for the word jale, I have heard Mexicans use that term in the drug culture, based on the many interpreting jobs I’ve done, that they use that to refer to dope, drugs in general.” R., Vol. V, at 529. She also testified that, in selecting the possible meanings she provided for the term jale, she relied on a variety of resources including books and the assistance and expertise of other interpreters. She agreed that the rendition “work, gig, job, [or] dope” was “based on all [her] training and experience as to what that slang term could mean.” Id. at 534.

Accordingly, the evidence established that the term jale was not code, but slang within the psychedelic drug subculture of the defendants’ region of origin. Ms. Gardner’s training and experience provided her with the ability to understand, and therefore to translate, the term.

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