DOWN AT THE courthouse the other day, the Ramsey County Attorney was laying out the charges in a tangle of legalese. In lay terms, it was a case of domestic abuse--a man accused of beating his wife. Both were Vietnamese, and neither spoke English, adding yet another layer of bewilderment to the day's proceedings. During an informal prep session in the corridor, the attorney leaned toward the plaintiff and pitched his voice louder, working for a perfect volume she might register and understand. As the syllables echoed off the ceiling, Henry Mai, standing nearby, hurried over, smiling--he'd heard the routine before. "May I?" he asked, stepping between the attorney and the confused woman like a missing link returned to the chain. "Now," he turned and said, "please repeat these words and I will interpret."
Between the three of them, the story took shape. What happened? He hit me. Did you go to the hospital? No. Do you have any injuries now? No. After a few rounds, she exited the huddle and the two men stood without comment for a moment. Then the attorney sighed. There's no proof, he told Mai, and without it there's no case. Let's talk to the defendant, but it looks like dismissal on this one.
The defendant came and took his wife's place in the triangle. Mai stood between them, briefcase in hand and the scant evidence for a winning case in mind, while the attorney repeated the woman's story one sentence at a time. Mai's head pivoted back and forth like a spectator's at a tennis match, turning English into Vietnamese and vice versa until all three men were nodding solemnly together in a single rhythm. Okay, Mai told the defendant, you must plead either guilty or not guilty. The man said nothing for a while, a silence everyone in earshot understood. Then in a rush of staccato syllables, he answered in Vietnamese. Mai shook his head--surprised--turned to the prosecutor, and answered, "Guilty, I plead guilty."
Over the past few years, Henry Mai has pled guilty to a slew of crimes--theft, drunk driving, murder. As one of only a handful of Vietnamese-English court interpreters working in the county, he's called on often to make sense of legal jargon and on-the-stand testimony, to help ensure, on the fly, that justice is served. Interpreting languages, as opposed to translating them from texts, means working at the speed of conversation, without the aid of dictionaries or the luxury of time to study the nuances of a slang term, a swear word, an idiom. It's no easy feat, even for someone fluent in Vietnamese, Mai's mother tongue; in French, his second language; and in English, his adopted one. The traps are everywhere, he points out: Try converting from English the word "damned" to a Buddhist, the phrase "it's a dog's life" to a new immigrant, or post-industrial America's idea of loneliness to someone on trial in a foreign courtroom who's never been so alone.
When it comes to the hierarchy of interpretation, the courtroom is the apex. Most who make their living in the field aspire to it but spend years instead doing what's called community interpreting--acting as go-between in a doctor's office, in special-ed classrooms, in the welfare department, where the calls-and-responses are fairly basic: What's your name? Where does it hurt? What is your income? Then there's the second level, conference interpreting--a speech by a foreign chemist, say, altered into several languages for a mixed audience wearing headphones. Both can be tricky, Mai says, "because if you miss a beat or get stumped on the flow, the whole meaning of the words can just dissolve into air."
But in court, language flies around the room, off the bench, out of the witness stand, at the jury box. U.S. law requires that a defendant be privy to everything uttered at trial, so even the most effluvial trivia--an "excuse me" after the judge sneezes--requires interpretation. That part, Mai says, is a cinch. The pressure comes from the nature of legal proceedings themselves, and the weight they carry: Everything spoken in court is grist for the record. For the interpreter, accuracy is everything--the exact time covered by an alibi, the precise angle of a bullet. Get it wrong, and fact erodes into fiction.
Anyone who follows legal doings knows that a jury measures the veracity of a witness by more than what gets said out loud; a single gesture--the flick of a wrist, the breaking of eye contact--can turn hours of testimony to dust. So, Mai points out, there's more than the literal rendering of language that's required. "My voice--and that's what I am, a voice--has to bring along nuances, feelings, shades of meaning. If someone says the equivalent of 'bullshit' and smacks his hand on the table, I copy, I mimic--but I try to stay neutral, which can be a tough thing." Tough, because Mai, who lived and worked in Saigon until it fell in 1975, knows, as an American judge or jury may not, how to read a Vietnamese face and accent for signs of truth or lying. It's an ethical fix sometimes, he says, like the one he found himself in with the domestic abuse scene: knowing the state's case is a house of cards, or at other times, that a sworn account is fabrication, or that some rational statements in one language sound silly, even bizarre, in another.