Court Interpretation in Peru

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Joran van der Sloot, the leading suspect in the disappearance of Natalee Holloway in Aruba in 2005, was arrested in Peru in 2010 and charged with the murder of Stephany Tatiana Flores Ramírez in Lima. According to news reports, the reason that he has not yet come to trial is that there are no certified Spanish-Dutch interpreters in Peru.

While I do not question the need for quality interpretation for a criminal defendant, and am not surprised at the lack of certified Spanish-Dutch interpreters, I am nonetheless surprised at the delay. According to van der Sloot's former Peruvian lawyer, he speaks Spanish well, but someone who can communicate with his lawyer may still not understand Spanish well enough to follow court proceedings. What I wonder, though, is why he cannot make use of the services of a Spanish-English interpreter, of which there are, presumably, an adequate supply. Not only has van der Sloot been documented as engaging in a wide variety of activities in English, but he is a graduate of the International School of Aruba, a school whose language of instruction is English. In other words, he appears to be a fluent speaker of English.

What I wonder is, therefore, whether there is some quirk of Peruvian law whereby a foreign defendant must be supplied with an interpreter in his national language, regardless of whether some other language would serve. Are any of our readers familiar with Peruvian law, or is there another explanation for the failure to use a Spanish-English interpreter?


  1. Tim Macdonald said,

    December 25, 2011 @ 6:19 pm

    My guess is that he has a legal right to interpretation into his native language, and is insisting on it for tactical reasons. If the trial is delayed long enough he may go free by default.

  2. Bill Poser said,

    December 25, 2011 @ 6:32 pm

    He may well have a legal right to interpretation into his native language, but I'm not sure that it is to his advantage to insist on it. As I understand it, there is no right to a speedy trial in Peru, so they can hold him indefinitely if they can't try him.

  3. Max Pinton said,

    December 25, 2011 @ 7:00 pm

    Even so, he or his lawyer may think that the more time that passes since the crime, the more likely evidence is lost, witnesses become less crediblle as they forget details, etc.

  4. Bill Poser said,

    December 25, 2011 @ 7:12 pm

    True, although in this case the evidence is apparently very strong and does not much depend on witnesses. They've got his admission that he took the victim to his room, surveillance video footage, the fact that she was found and apparently killed in his room, his guilty flight, etc. It's conceivable that they're gambling on evidence or witnesses disappearing, but it doesn't seem to be the kind of case where that is a good bet.

  5. Janice Byer said,

    December 25, 2011 @ 8:25 pm

    Depending on his legally assessed chance of being convicted of murder, his being held prior to trial, albeit indefinitely, may be preferable for the few privileges it entitles over incarceration.

  6. Björn Lindström said,

    December 25, 2011 @ 8:33 pm

    It may be that the law requires an interpreter for the native tongue of the defendant or witness.

    This reminds me of attending a Swedish trial where the English-to-Swedish interpreter was not a very competent Swedish speaker, nor a native speaker of neither language. The witness, as well as the lawyers and court were plainly more competent in English. Nonetheless the interpreter had to be recorded interpreting everything, even if often incorrectly, to comply with the law. 

    Yes, it did cause me to wonder about trials where interpretation is actually necessary. 

  7. Bill Poser said,

    December 25, 2011 @ 8:55 pm

    The official status of what the interpreter says has been an issue in the US courts. If an error is subsequently found, it is difficult to appeal because only what the interpreter said is part of the official record of the trial; the witness's original statement is not. There have also been cases where a juror was fluent in Spanish and disagreed with the interpreter. In such cases, the juror is supposed to ignore his or her own knowledge and not say anything to the other jurors because the official evidence is what the interpreter said. I think that the correct course of action is supposed to be for the juror to notify the judge, who can then have the testimony reinterpreted, but if the judge is unwilling to do so or if the official interpretation still disagrees with the juror, it can lead to the removal of the juror or a mistrial. (This is much more likely to occur in state courts. Federal courts use certified interpreters who are generally highly competent. State courts may use anyone from a professional interpreter to the bailiff's sister who took Spanish in high school.)

  8. JMM said,

    December 26, 2011 @ 12:38 am

    Does the interpreter have to be a Peruvian? Surely, with their intertwined histories, their are a few Dutch wannbe History Professors that know Spanish and wouldn't mind some time in Peru. Or some people that just like to vacation in Southern Spain? (I know about the whole lisp thing, but the dialects aren't that different, are they?)

  9. Matthew Stephen Stuckwisch said,

    December 26, 2011 @ 2:22 am

    Bill: I'm not as familiar for jurors, but during my interpreter training I was told that if there's one or two disagreements in translation then it can be disputed on court record but if, for instance, the prosecutor is constantly disagreeing with the translation (regardless who is right), then the translator can inform the judge that he is unable to continue to perform is duties because of the constant interruptions of the prosecutor and request recusal from the case. Then the court must find a new interpreter. I've never done it or seen it happen, but that must be one heck of a thing to see play out.

    Also, as to why no English… he may be versed in conversational English or even academic/scientific English, but that doesn't mean that he has an understand of judicial English. Not that I necessarily agree with that — most people in their native language have very little of understanding of judicial jargon so there's no real advantage given to the native-speaking defendant in any court.

    Re Peru specifically. Article 2.19 of the Constitution: "[Toda persona tiene derecho:] A su identidad étnica y cultural. El Estado reconoce y protege la pluralidad étnica y cultural de la Nación. Todo peruano tiene derecho a usar su propio idioma ante cualquier autoridad mediante un intérprete. Los extranjeros tienen este mismo derecho cuando son citados por cualquier autoridad." ([Every person has the right:] To his ethnic and cultural identity. The State recognizes and protects the Nation's ethnic and cultural diversity. Every Peruvian has the right to use his own language before any authority via an interpreter. Foreigners have this same right when they are called upon by any authority.)

    The Peruvian constitution guarantees due process, but I couldn't find on a quick search the actual organic law that would define it so I have no idea if that includes a speedy trial except that I did find an article quoting a lawyer saying that a trial that went on for ten years exceeded the limits in national law.

  10. michael farris said,

    December 26, 2011 @ 4:03 am

    "not surprised at the lack of certified Spanish-Dutch interpreters"

    I am. There is a Dutch speaking country in South America (Surinam, which has a small population, but…) and many/most Papiamento speakers in the Netherlands Antilles are very competent in Dutch and Spanish. Also a small population but those are logical places to start looking.

    I also find it unfortunate (not hard to believe but unfortunate) that there are no Dutch language programs at any Peruvian universities.

    My best guess echos other peoples' – he thinks it's in his interests to postpone the trial as long as possible and is using one option available to him.

  11. Michael said,

    December 26, 2011 @ 4:34 am

    The Peruvians are lucky he isn't a Navajo…

  12. Bill Poser said,

    December 26, 2011 @ 6:27 pm

    There are no doubt a fair number of people competent in both Spanish and Dutch, but it is quite plausible that none of them are trained interpreters. Quality interpretation requires more than knowledge of both languages, and in the case of a court interpreter, it requires knowledge of legal terminology. Even if trained interpreters are available in other countries, Peruvian courts may require certification in Peru, which may not be obtainable quickly or easily. Unfortunately, I don't know exactly what the requirements of the Peruvian courts are, or what the world supply of Spanish-Dutch interpreters is.

  13. Bill Poser said,

    December 26, 2011 @ 6:31 pm

    The Constitutional provision cited by Matthew Stephen Stuckwisch does suggest that van der Sloot has the right to demand interpretation into Dutch even if he could handle English, though it depends on whether Peruvian law interprets "su propio idioma" as meaning one's native language or merely a language in which a person is fluent. (Note, by the way, this relatively rare example of a Spanish noun that ends in /a/ but is of masculine gender.)

  14. Mr Punch said,

    December 27, 2011 @ 8:58 am

    On the Spanish side, I believe that "official" Peruvian Spanish is considered to be an unusually pure/standard version of the language. In my college days, those studying Spanish were advised to go to Lima, as students of French were sent to Tours.

  15. Not My Leg said,

    December 27, 2011 @ 11:54 am

    On pressing the tactical advantage of delay. Even if the evidence is unlikely to decay over time, if the lawyer believes it to be sufficiently strong today, then it is in Van der Sloot's interest to delay trial as long as possible. If the chance of conviction on the available evidence is close to 100 percent, and the penalty is sufficiently harsh, then almost any reduction in the probability of conviction is worse the trade-off in terms of remaining incarcerated waiting for evidence to degrade.

    As for wanting to retain privileges not available after conviction, according to wikipedia he is essentially in isolation for protective purposes 24 hours/day.

  16. Anthony said,

    December 28, 2011 @ 1:36 am

    Could not the government request the Embassy of the Netherlands provide an interpreter?

  17. Janice Byer said,

    December 28, 2011 @ 1:58 am

    NML, protective isolation may not seem like a privilege over incarceration, but when it protects you from the very thing to which incarceration will expose you, it is.

  18. Rick Sprague said,

    December 28, 2011 @ 10:00 am

    Don't neglect that insistence on a Spanish-Dutch interpreter is prudent of the court. If the defendant loses at trial, as seems likely, claiming that he misunderstood an English interpreter could very well form the basis of an appeal, and would put the court in the position of evaluating his English skills, which it presumably is unprepared to do. That could lead to setting aside the verdict, wasting a great deal of time and money, and that's not even considering whether Peru forbids double jeopardy or whether it would apply in such a situation.

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