AI versus Court Interpreter

I have been watching the debate on artificial intelligence. Many translators will attest that only highly skilled human beings with knowledge and training can understand the nuances of human interaction can properly translate. Artificial intelligence such as Google Translate and other programs are not capable of performing as a human being.


Granted, they are improving. I recently listened to an NPR segment that demonstrated how a computer was able to beat a human in a monolingual debate. However, artificial intelligence still falls short of professional translators and interpreters.


It is a real challenge for monolingual police officers to communicate with limited English proficient people. It would seem logical that using Google Translate or some other similar app could be of great benefit to the Police Department. However, the problem is these apps are not admissible as evidence in court.  For successful prosecution, the solicitor needs solid evidence from the police investigation.


Consider the example of Omar Cruz-Zamora, a Mexican national in the United States with a visa. Mr. Cruz was arrested for possession of cocaine and methamphetamines after consenting to a police search of his car. The question is, did he really consent to a search? When the officer realized Mr. Cruz spoke very little English, he began to use Google Translate. Mr. Cruz revealed that he had over $7,000 in his vehicle. The officer then asked if he could search the car using Google Translate. Mr. Cruz answered affirmatively, resulting in the police officer’s discovery of 14 pounds of methamphetamine and cocaine.


Google Translate’s literal translation led Mr. Cruz to believe that the officer was asking if he could look at the car, not search in the car. It was cogent that Google Translate lacked the necessary context for someone to consent to a search. The court determined that Google Translate provided a literal but nonsensical translation and omitted the context of the question.


Most of you who read my blog know how strongly I feel about using in-person, professional interpreters. However, I recognize that it isn’t always possible or practical. The police department can utilize a simple, cost-effective solution:  over-the-phone (OPI) interpreter.  Many companies who provide this service have economical plans. Police department personnel could (1) communicate with SC Court Administration or its county to ascertain which language companies are utilized, and (2) call and request a court OPI.  Chances are that for the cost of two grande Frappuccinos and a half-dozen donuts, the police officer would have communicated better with Mr. Cruz and have a rock-solid case that would stick.


This case illustrates the importance of using a certified legal interpreter and not depending on artificial intelligence.  AI, like Google Translate, can be a useful tool, but its serious limitations and implications in law enforcement settings cannot replace an interpreter. If you want to clear communication that holds its weight in court, use a professional certified interpreter in major foreign languages (e.g., Spanish, Russian) and a professional qualified interpreter for languages of lesser diffusion (e.g., Amharic, Gujarati).

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