Tojolabal Maya Language Translation

Information on this site is designed to facilitate Tojolabal court translation for monolingual Tojolabal Maya speakers and marginal bi-lingual speakers of Tojolabal and (non-standard) Spanish who have been detained by U.S. law enforcement agencies.

U.S. law (Title 28/1827 "Court Interpreters Act," 1978) requires that non-English speaking individuals detained under suspicion of criminal activity be provided with bilingual translators in their native language. As immigration from Mexico increases, federal and state courts are increasingly faced with difficulties in finding court interpreters, especially when those detained are monolingual speakers of one of the many Mexican and Central American indigenous languages. Since there are no certification procedures in place for these languages, and very few speakers of these languages in the U.S. are in a position to be certified as court translators, court translation services are hard pressed to provide interpreters, even within the provisions of the legal code.

While some indigenous language speakers may have rudimentary abilities in Spanish, they can only poorly understand standard Spanish, and may be too intimidated to even attempt to reply. In such cases, it can be difficult to determine even what the individual's native language is called; for this very reason, one Tojolabal monolingual defendant was incarcerated for 11 months before the county court translation service located me.

Over the past two years, I have been contacted by legal services in several counties in Arizona and California to undertake translation for Tojolabal, a Mayan language spoken in Chiapas, Mexico. While I am not a fluent speaker, I do have long experience working with the community language, beginning in 1976; the structure and use of the Tojolabal language have been the research focus of my academic career. In addition to my knowledge of the language, I have the anthropological training and long-term and intensive fieldwork experience in the community that allows me to communicate with speakers of Tojolabal in a culturally appropriate fashion.

Engaging in court interpretation for monolingual Tojolabal speakers involves more than literal translation; in fact it requires the explication of U.S. law and world view to individuals who have little or no understanding of even the Mexican legal system. In order to facilitate this kind of cross-cultural translation, I have recently worked with Tojolabal / Spanish bilinguals in Chiapas who have some education and some familiarity with the U.S. legal system - even if only from watching "La Ley y el Orden" ("Law and Order") on television. They have helped me to develop strategies for facilitating communication of crucial legal processes across world views.

To date, I have been engaged by several counties in Arizona and California as an "otherwise qualified interpreter ( Title 28/1827 (d) (1))," and have successfully served as an interpreter of Tojolabal to English (and Spanish) for several cases, ranging from securing confirmation of the supervision of a juvenile (over the telephone) to felony hearings (involving pre-hearing consultations with the defendant and in-court interpretation).