You’re Missing the Point (Ahí está el detalle)

“No me falte usted al respeto, no soy cualquier cosa, soy el acusado. Yo ahí afuera tengo otro detalle, no así no se porta con uno la gente.”

– Cantinflas, “El juicio,” available here

No small ripple

In 1992, the Real Academia Española accepted the term “cantinflear” for “rambling, talking, or acting in an absurd way, with no clear meaning or intentions.” Spanish-speaking readers already know quite well the origin of this term. The Mexican comedian and actor Mario Moreno, commonly known as Cantinflas, had a successful career making convoluted remarks, which, at the end of the day, meant really nothing. With time, he became so popular that he signed a contract with Hollywood and played in English-language films.

We knew about Cantinflas in Argentina, as he also was a king of comedy there: just as the sun did not set on the British Empire, neither did it do so on his kingdom. Can you imagine how strong his influence still is, even after his passing nearly two decades ago? His mannerisms, which imitate poor people’s speaking style, and his influence in everyday life are still with us now. And when I say now, I mean now. Like last week.

I was working for a case where a Mexican man was charged with a serious offense. The prosecutor was doing his job, hammering with precise questions about the nature of the infringement.

“Well, sir, do you admit that you drove to the specified location?”

“Yes; well, like, I do not know. Like yes, but at the end of the day, we are all… you see, when you ask me about ‘drive,’ you are asking, like… ‘drive’? Yes, I did drive.”

This was not the first time the judge had heard this kind of answer from the defendant.

“And do you admit to having exchanged money with the officer?”

“Yes. I mean, exchange, not really, as in ‘exchange,’ like in the case of you-give-me-money-and-I-give-you-something-in-return, because the officer did not give me anything.”

Deceitful or just bashful?

The defendant did not mean to be funny. He was, in fact, sweating bullets. The judge was fuming, and we were all quite fatigued because of the morose pace of questioning. The judge finally said to the defendant, with a tone of “stop playing games”:

“You need to clearly state what happened.”

“I am, Your Honor. You know, I am very nervous, and I feel like the questions are not clear.”

“No, you are not. You are rambling, and the questions are quite clear. Did you give the money to the officer?”

“No, I put it there.”

“Where is ‘there’?” the judge raised his voice. “We have heard the same song since this morning, Mister, and I want clear answers.”

“I left the money on the table.”

“Okay, we are going to take a short recess,” said the judge. “I have been on the bench long enough to know when a judge needs some air.”

At a loss

I needed some air too.  By that moment, five hours into the trial, I had already realized that the defendant was “cantinfleando.” How did I come to that conclusion? Simple: he always started his answers by clearly admitting his fault, and then he started rambling, adding unnecessary words to his phrases, like a baroque poet.

My lucky stars were shining down on me: in the corridor, I met Andrea, who is an auditor. An auditor is a lawyer who listens to what is happening at the hearing live. She also speaks Spanish, and she greeted me kindly:

“Nice performance, interpreter. I was auditing your case, and your client is a hot mess.”

“I find myself in a pickle.”

“And are you now?” she jokingly answered.

“Yes.”

“Tell me how I can help.”

I explained my point. The defendant was admitting his crimes. But every time he was admitting something, he also was adding words, making his statements less clear. From my point of view, he was cantinfleando. And I was worried that, in case he was found guilty, that would add some extra time to his prison sentence, because of the loss of credibility to his statements. He was not being credible, and that carries extra prison time. What would you do, Andrea?

“I do not know,” she said. “Maybe talk with both barristers and give them the heads up. But it is true: you are in a quandary. You are supposed to stay silent and only interpret, without interfering with the proceedings. And yet it is true that you have found something that could misfire. So, use your best judgement.”

It’s not what you think it is

When we were called back to the hearing room, I asked the judge:

“May Your Honor allow me the permission to address both parties in private? This interpreter has found something that needs to be clarified.”

This judge knows me. It was not our first rodeo, nor our worst. (Our worst was a case where one of my clients, a young woman, could not stop farting during the hearing.) So he gave me the permission to talk to both barristers in private.

I explained the situation. I was worried that I was overstepping boundaries. And the prosecutor looked at me, pointed her finger at my face, and said:

“I knew it!”

“What?”

“You and me, we worked together years ago for a case where a Mexican woman would do exactly the same thing: gabble and gabble and not say anything. Do you remember her?”

I did. That woman would end up exasperating several judges, and all her defense lawyers would ask for permission to cease representing her, because she would not stop talking and would never say anything meaningful.

Finally, both barristers thanked me and discussed the situation with the judge. I, of course, had to excuse myself and leave the case to a colleague. Once I had expressed my opinion on the matter, I needed to step out, and I did. It was worth it.


Pedro Carbajal was born in Uruguay, where he worked as a screenwriter before moving to Quebec, Canada, in 2007. He studied translation at McGill University (Montreal) from 2014 to 2016, and then interpretation at York University, Glendon College (Toronto), in 2016. He lives in Quebec City, where he works as a translator as well as a conference and courtroom interpreter. Contact Pedro at info@pedrocarbajal.com.

Main photo in the public domain, from the Brazilian National Archives. Body photo taken with permission from Piqsels.

13 Comments
  • Gio Lester
    Posted at 18:53h, 27 August Reply

    Great story, Pedro! Thank you for sharing.

  • Virginia Perez-Santalla
    Posted at 19:54h, 27 August Reply

    I feel your pain! I was interpreting once for a woman that went on and on, not going anywhere near the answer to the question. That was about 20 yrs. ago and I still remember her very well!

  • Miriam Villegas-Negron
    Posted at 20:14h, 27 August Reply

    Perfect example of what many defendants.

  • Katty Kauffman
    Posted at 12:58h, 28 August Reply

    Thank you for this article and the sincerity. Making the decision to cross the line from “court interpreter” to “cultural mediator” is never an easy one. Once you did, you recused yourself as an interpreter. That is very much the right thing to do.
    That said, I assume that this case did not take place in the U.S. (I have never seen an “auditor” in a U.S. court, nor a reference to a “barrister.”) I also assume (at my own peril: assumptions are dangerous things!) that the code of ethics and conduct for court interpreters in your jurisdiction allows you to “overstep” in this case and to take the action you did

    Had this been in a U.S. court –and certainly in a Federal Court — such an intervention would probably not have been well received and would likely be deemed a violation of Canon 7 (Scope of Practice) of the Standards for Performance and Professional Responsibility for Contract Court Interpreters in the Federal Courts which reads:
    “Interpreters shall limit themselves to interpreting or translating and shall not give legal advice, express personal opinions to individuals for whom they are interpreting or engage in any other activities which may be construed to constitute a service other than interpreting or translating while serving as an interpreter.”

    Food for thought.

  • Fontengwan J Abeh
    Posted at 17:35h, 28 August Reply

    I agree into to with your remark on what takes place here in the US pertaining to CANON 7. My hair stood on end as I perused Pedro Carbajal’s article. “Merci Seigneur!” (Thank God!), that this courthouse scenario did not occur in the US.

  • Michelle Gonzales
    Posted at 18:11h, 28 August Reply

    I have interpreted for Cantiflas style defendants as well (it’s very frustrating to interpret). I have actually wondered in the past…do some English speaking defendants do this too? I don’t have much experience listening to English speaking defendants on the stand. But maybe this isn’t just limited to certain cultures. Maybe court personnel already know that some people do this for whatever reason and know how much weight to give it.

    But in agreement with Katty’s comment, here in the U.S. I just have to let the court figure it out for themselves.

  • A. Salguero
    Posted at 05:01h, 29 August Reply

    Thank you for sharing such an odd court experience. I guess the Code of Ethics for Court Interpreters in Canada is completely different to the U.S. right?

  • Leonor Valderrama de Sillers
    Posted at 16:37h, 29 August Reply

    Thanks for the article, Pedro.
    I can understand your compassion and empathy for the LEP party. However, I agree 100% with Katty Kauffman´s very diplomatic comments. As a teacher of the Interpreter Code of Ethics, I always emphasize that the role of the court interpreter is not that of an advocate. We never know what a defendant has in mind when giving and a convoluted answer and we must only interpret what is said. By being a “Cultural mediator” the interpreter puts into doubt his or her impartiality, which is the touch stone of our profession.
    I also emphasize to my students, that the LEP parties for whom we interpret are not our “clients.” Referring to them as such, also brings into question our impartiality.

  • Irene Radillo-Diaz, FCCI
    Posted at 21:57h, 01 September Reply

    Along the same lines, even the most basic of questions that in English are usually answered without further complication are needlessly confusing/incomplete/ambiguous when answered by some defendants. The simple> Q: What is your name? A: Miguel. (I’ve never heard English speaking defendants just give out their first name, when asked). And of course> Q: How old is your daughter? A: She’ll be 7 in May (because it’s just TOO hard to answer “6”.)
    Ah, so much fun! Todo esto no está ni bien, ni mal, sino todo lo contrario. 🙂 Have fun!

  • Hilda E. Zavala
    Posted at 14:15h, 03 September Reply

    Thank you for your entertaining post, Pedro. I used to wonder if judges knew I wasn’t the one interpreting in a convoluted way but the litigant. But that was when I first started interpreting. This kind of speech makes out jobs quite difficult, however as Kathy, I refrain from making any comments regarding the LEP’s testimony. This may clarify future interventions for you, or it may well be that Canada has different codes of conduct and ethics. Be that as it may please continue sharing your experiences with us. It was great reading you!

  • Maria Juega
    Posted at 21:31h, 03 September Reply

    Thank you for sharing such an interesting instance of an ethical quandary. One would like to think that the attorney defending a defendant with such a bad Cantinflas syndrome would have picked up on it. I don’t think this is unique to Latin American culture. I would dare suggest this was a glaring case of inadequate representation by the defense, and kudos to you, Pedro, for raising the issue in an appropriate way. I am not so sure I agree that this action should disqualify the interpreter from proceeding with the case because it demonstrates a concern with due process, not necessarily a bias for the defendant. But, that is a secondary consideration, I guess.

  • Cristina Clare
    Posted at 11:36h, 21 September Reply

    What an interesting article

  • Cristina Clare
    Posted at 11:39h, 21 September Reply

    No comments at this point

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