Babel in the Courthouse


By Mariya Karimjee

Kings County Supreme Court Judge Joseph McKay rests his head in his hands. Defense attorney Stacey Van Malden argues that her client is having trouble understanding the trial’s proceedings. Yousheng Huang, the defendant, folds his hands into his lap and stares ahead.

“My client wasn’t able to communicate effectively with the interpreter,” Van Malden explains.  McKay asks if the problem is in the dialect. The court appointed interpreter puts the question to Huang.

A stream of Cantonese follows the question. Huang leans forward, gesturing with his hands as he speaks, punctuating each word by pinching the air with his thumb and forefinger.

For a moment there is a pause. Then, slowly, the interpreter repeats the information to the courtroom. Huang isn’t able to follow the translation. As soon as the interpreter stops speaking, Huang begins speaking again. He is visibly distressed, and the interpreter indicates he’d like his son to do the translating.

This continues for another three to four minutes. In the gaps between the translations, the silence is uncomfortable. Huang’s family, huddled closely together behind him, nod. This is one of the few parts of the trial they’ve been able to understand. Finally, McKay tells the court that for the rest of the day, he will speak slowly and more clearly. Tomorrow, there will be a new interpreter.

Huang is on trial for attempted murder. He is alleged to have hit his ex-wife, Shao Ling Ye, with a meat cleaver in the apartment that they shared in Dyker Heights. They had been married 25 years, and recently divorced. Both were involved in other relationships. She received over 30 stitches for the six lacerations she suffered to her head and hands. She also had a displaced skull fracture. Five months ago, she returned to China to live with her family, and was unavailable as a witness.

The court has just reconvened after a lunch break, and Huang’s confusion is not the first, or the last language related problem of the day. Earlier, the prosecutors presented a witness who only spoke Cantonese. Her testimony was unclear, and even Ed Purce, the prosecutor, had difficulty questioning his witness. Twice, because of a miscommunication, her responses were stricken from the record.

Half an hour after Huang’s distressed outburst, Purce and Van Malden argue the details of Ye’s hospital records. Ye, who spoke no English, had difficulty communicating with the EMT, as well as the police, who had to rely on an interpreter to piece together how Ye sustained her injuries. As Van Malden argues that her inability to communicate with the medical professionals means that a lot of their comments on the hospital records are hearsay, McKay sifts through a pile of papers. Then after a discussion about which comments will be stricken, McKay announces “we’re finished.”

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3 Responses to “Babel in the Courthouse”

  1. Diane
    December 1, 2010 at 7:18 PM #

    It’s amazing to me that the broader issue of domestic violence and crime are not the main focus of this article. Violence and crime are universal languages that American’s are often too, too soft to prosecute with the kind of vigor that would actual result in a deterring the problem in the first place. Who give a damn how precise the interpreter’s Cantonese is? This is not China. Perhaps the now convicted defendant should have committed his crime in China if he was so concerned about language.

  2. RG
    December 1, 2010 at 7:31 PM #

    I’m juror number 6 on this trial. One thing I learned in reviewing the evidence presented, is that though domestic violence was not on trial, most jurors understood its presence in the case and took it into account. On another note, it became painfully clear to me that juror intelligence plays a huge role in arriving at a verdict that can see beyond the kinds of “technicalities” that often make it easy for jurors to lose confidence in their human experience and common sense to determine what is so. Arriving at our verdict today was a bit like having to bake an apple pie knowing that one of your apples was rotten. The pie looks great in the end but it leaves a nasty after taste.

  3. Jodie
    December 30, 2010 at 7:21 AM #

    While I don’t know the ins and outs and the rights and wrongs of this case, one thing that I do know is that everyone is entitled to a fair trial, no matter what they are accused of. Any slip-up in translation could send an innocent man down or allow a guilty man to go free. You can’t cut corners with legal translation, it has to be a qualified professional from a translation agency. That’s not to say that the interpreter was unqualified but he evidently wasn’t suited to this particular case.

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