Lost in Translation at the Monserrate Trial

Witness corrects Spanish language translator -- in English

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    NEWSLETTERS

    TK
    NBCNewYork.com
    Jasmina Roja entering the courthouse.

    It may have been a courtroom first: a witness, who apparently needed Spanish translation, stopped her testimony to correct the court-appointed translator -- in English.

    The assault trial of State Senator Hiram Monserrate was brought to a halt this afternoon when defense witness Jasmina Rojas, an  Ecuadoran immigrant who is the cousin of the alleged victim, stopped her testimony to complain that her words were being improperly translated.

    "I've never had this happen before!" exclaimed veteran Queens Supreme Court Judge William Erlbaum.

    It happened over a key word -- and issue -- in the trial. Rojas is Karla Giraldo's cousin and was with Giraldo at night last December hours before Giraldo allegedly was slashed with broken glass by boyfriend Monserrate. The senator's defense attorney called Rojas to verify Giraldo's story of having been drunk.

    Matters got sticky when the interpreter translated Rojas as saying Giraldo had been "happy." When a prosecutor who was cross-examining pounced on the difference between "happy" and "drunk" (the less drunk Giraldo was, the better for the district attorney), Rojas herself objected.  The witness' English evidently is good enough to know that she meant "drunk."

    That caused attorneys on both sides to ask that Rojas continue in English, led a bemused Judge Erlbaum to ask the interpreter if she wanted to be replaced and generally brought the proceedings to a snickering halt for 12 minutes.

    Outside the courtroom later, one court officer with knowledge of Ecuadoran culture said that people there will often use the Spanish word for "happy" when they mean "drunk," and add a tipsy hand gesture to convey full meaning. But hand gestures are useless at a legal proceeding that allows only spoken words. 

    So far defense attorneys have no plan to call that officer as a witness to enlighten Judge Erlbaum, who's deciding the case without a jury.

    After an abruptly called recess, Rojas returned to the stand to continue ... in Spanish.  With the same interpreter.