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Nuances matter when interpreting for trafficking cases

Long after a police raid has busted a human trafficking ring, emotionally difficult and legally complicated follow-up work continues, requiring a wide cultural and linguistic vocabulary, said Cindy Liou, staff attorney with the human trafficking project at API.

The situation is “stark” for victims of forced-work and sexual trafficking, in part because investigators don’t always know what questions to ask, or how to interpret the answers said Liou, who will talk about interpreting in human trafficking cases at the California Federation of Interpreters annual conference.

“We have a strict definition of ‘interpreter,’” she said in a telephone interview. “But the interpreter can also be a cultural broker” and must be sensitive to nuances in language.

The victim may be subtly conveying psychological coercion to which she has been subjected, or threats to deport, or to injure or kill the victim’s family members.

For instance, one woman engaged as a domestic worker by a Saudi Arabian family discovered her bags had been searched, implying a deadlier threat than might appear on the surface: If the employer claimed to find stolen goods, the woman could be subjected to punishments dictated by Sharia law.

“The employers had set her up,” Liou said.

Asked if she has been imprisoned, a victim may say no. But the appropriate question may be whether or not she has been given a key to the home. Without it, she is not free to come and go.

Interpreters must cue in to nuance in vocabulary as well, Liou said: If in his native language “traffico” means smuggling, he is likely to honestly deny having been subjected to trafficking.

Originally an intellectual property specialist, Liou, since joining API, has come to the aid of temporary workers who were hired as nurses and teachers, then forced into menial jobs with heavy tolls extracted from their pay to “compensate” employers for the cost of travel. She has helped young men forced to work as drug mules,  and “brides” in servile marriages, in which the woman becomes a servant for the husband’s extended family.

The law is punctured with numerous loopholes created during the time of slavery, Liou said. And low-wage, low-skill industries are rife with abuse.

Spanish language interpreters are in the greatest demand, Liou said, followed closely by those who speak Portugese for Brazilian clients, French for Haitian and Africans, and Tagalog for Filipinos.

API is a member of the Freedom Network coalition, whose members take a rights-based approach to human trafficking and modern-day slavery.

Rights attorney Cindy Liou discusses nuances in interpreting for and questioning victims in human trafficking cases at 1:05 p.m. Sunday in the 11th annual CFI conference, “Expanding Our Horizons,” at the Oakland Marriott Hotel.

 

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Kat Anderson

Kat Anderson

Pacific Media Workers Guild Administrative Officer/Business Agent, founder of Bay News Rising mentorship program for college journalism students and editor of mediaworkers.org.

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