Hometown USA, 1997

It was the first time and the last time I ever got paid to work as an interpreter.

A Public Defender named “Amerigo” engaged my translation services on account of he was very frustrated because of a client he couldn’t communicate with. He thought the problem was a language barrier due to the client being Korean-American. We met at the County Courthouse where his client had already been behind bars for some 32 days. After passing all the security checks, Amerigo and I were escorted into a dingy holding cell where “Komidge”* was humbly sitting handcuffed in an orange jumpsuit. The cell reeked of body odor and stale sweat, and as we sat down, I could smell Komidge’s pungent breath from across the table. It stank as if he had survived for 32 days by sucking on garlic cloves and cigarettes without ever brushing his teeth.

Amerigo was not subtle about his distaste for this client and this case. He handed me the police report and curtly told me to translate it to Komidge and ask him what he had to say. I soon realized the communication problem was due more to the fact that Komidge was perhaps a bit simple, and very easily distracted. He would switch between Korean and English randomly, while showing an obvious preference for English. Whenever we got any momentum by me sticking to Korean, he would stop and ask me in English how I came to know Korean. It’s a common problem for Koreans to not be able to process the fact that someone so clearly not Korean could possibly be speaking the 조선말. It just does not compute.

The police report said that Komidge had made sexually suggestive gestures and comments to two little girls at a homeless shelter playground. As I was fumbling through my 한영영한 사전trying to translate the report aloud, I asked him if he had solicited sex from the two “girls (여자).” He reacted immediately to my use of the word “여자.” He got agitated enough to speak Korean and denied all the charges saying, “They weren’t ‘girls,’ they were 'young children' (어린이).” It was as if the distinction indicated a deeper sense of morality that would prevent one from doing the things Komidge was accused of. I told Amerigo what he said and shared my impression. Amerigo, visibly disgusted, got up and left the stinky cell.

Three weeks later Amerigo called and asked me to come appear before the judge and interpret for Komidge. He had struck a deal with the Prosecutor to lower the charge to some misdemeanor. The Prosecutor would request credit for the time already served if Komidge agreed to plead guilty to the lesser charge. Komidge, nearly crying, defiantly asserted his innocence. I asked him if he wanted out of jail. If so, all he had to do was cop to it. It clearly didn’t sit right with him, but he said he would. When the judge asked him if he agreed with the terms of the settlement, he paused for quite some time. The judge asked me what was going on. I turned and simply whispered to Komidge to say he was guilty. He bowed his head and with slumped shoulders, meekly whimpered “guilty.” The judge credited time served and closed the case with a crisp crack of the gavel.

Amerigo got up to leave, turned back to me and said, “Tell him he better leave town and never come back.” I feebly muttered “Freedom” to Komidge in his mother tongue and left the courtroom with a gnawing in the pit of my stomach.

I never saw nor heard from Amerigo or Komidge again.

*Names have been changed. Komidge is not a Korean name that I have ever heard. But neither was the alliteratively similar name that the client actually used.


Matthew said...

how long had you been back in America by then? or does knowing this knowledge spoil something in a future post? how did you get contacted to translate? was the pay any good?

White Rice said...

My friend was translating Spanish and Portuguese to English for an agency. The agency owner mentioned to her that they had 3 different cases coming up needing a Korean interpreter but they had nobody. My friend referred me so I signed up. The money was nice at the time; like $35/hour. But I only put in like 5 hours total on that job.