Oh, Stewardess! I Speak Cop!
Plenty of people have been having some fun with the news that the Justice Department is seeking qualified Ebonics translators.
The Department of Justice is seeking to hire linguists fluent in Ebonics to help monitor, translate, and transcribe the secretly recorded conversations of subjects of narcotics investigations, according to federal records.
A maximum of nine Ebonics experts will work with the Drug Enforcement Administration’s Atlanta field division, where the linguists, after obtaining a “DEA Sensitive” security clearance, will help investigators decipher the results of “telephonic monitoring of court ordered nonconsensual intercepts, consensual listening devices, and other media”
It's a little less hilarious in context, though.
If you've ever handled a case with a wiretap or consensually recorded conversation, you'll know what the feds are looking for: they want people who will dutifully translate vague, jargon-laden, often unintelligible conversations in a manner that will support their theory of the case. If the people on the tape say something difficult to hear that might be "shirt" or "thing" or "hat", the feds want a "translator" who will get on the stand and proclaim, with pseudo-scientific confidence, that the person did say "shirt" or "thing" or "hat", and that "shirt" or "thing" or "hat" is necessarily, in context, a reference to large quantities of illegal drugs. Juries, notably and regrettably credulous about law enforcement pseudo-science, eat this stuff up.
There is, of course, no reliable peer-reviewed Institute of Ebonics to which one can appeal for testimony that the translator in question in full of shit. Judges are notoriously lenient about letting such testimony in, and translators (like other technicians serving the prosecution) are notoriously eager to provide the most incriminating translation possible.
Back when I was a fed, my office had a rough patch in its relationship with a local DEA office. It seems that the DEA office just loved a particular Spanish translator, and used her to translate as many wiretaps and CI recordings as possible. The translator advertised vigorously to local law enforcement, sending fliers that said things like "the right translation can make the difference between a guilty verdict and a not guilty verdict" and "how I translate one word can make all the difference to your case." Some defense attorneys got wind of these advertisements and were kicking the shit out of the translator on the cross-examination; the pandering partiality was grotesque enough that even jurors grasped it. My office didn't want her used any more; the DEA office stubbornly refused to stop using her, proclaiming that there was nothing whatsoever wrong with a translator who marketed herself as an open advocate for the government. But her only error was a lack of subtlety. That's the sort of translator DoJ is looking for.
Last 5 posts by Ken White
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