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Beloved interpreter remembered for his language skills — and his sketches — inside the courtroom

Portrait of Mike Mahler, an older man with white beard wearing glasses and grinning.
Courtesy of Mahler family
Mike Mahler, one of the first federally certified court interpreters in Texas, died last month. He founded his own language services company in 1970.

Some of the defendants who Mike Mahler heard testimony from were low-level drug offenders. Others were high level drug cartel members.

For Mahler, a federally certified court interpreter, it didn’t matter who he was interpreting for.

“I think it’s a testament to him that no matter who he was doing the translation for, he did it the same way,” said George Leal, an assistant U.S. attorney in Dallas. “He was there to do a job and he did it in a professional manner. He never looked down on anyone.”

Those who knew Mahler have been remembering their beloved friend and colleague, who died last month after a battle with cancer. He was 84.

Mahler was one of the first federally certified court interpreters in North Texas and one of the few in the country. Nationwide, there are fewer than 1,000 federally certified interpreters.

Leal, who worked cases in which Mahler was an interpreter, said it takes a special skill to do this type of work and translate words automatically.

“You really have to be able to tune out and tune in at the same time, because the translations that are occurring are simultaneous,” Leal said. “It’s not like the judge is speaking one sentence and then Mike is translating the subsequent sentence into Spanish. It’s a constant flow of information.”

Paul Stickney, a retired U.S. magistrate judge and former federal public defender, said Mahler never showed emotion on the job.

He remembered the time Mahler interpreted for one of his clients, who was on the stand testifying in a large conspiracy drug trial in Dallas. Law enforcement had pulled over the defendant who was driving an 18-wheeler full of marijuana. But the defendant claimed he didn’t know what the truck was carrying. The prosecutor asked him what he said when police told him the truck was full of marijuana.

“He said, ‘Oh F***’ [in Spanish] and Mike just interpreted it into English,” Stickney recalled. “Everyone had a little chuckle because it was so deadpan when Mike said it, but the witness, of course, was in Spanish a little bit more animated.”

Stickney said he and others teased Mahler about that and Mahler’s response was always, “Well, that’s my job. I’m professional. I’m supposed to interpret exactly as they say.”

Stickney got to know Mike well because they traveled together to Mexico for prisoner transfers in Monterrey, Hermosillo and Ciudad Juarez. They did those four times a year for hearings Stickney presided over.

“He was always in demand and always readily available,” Stickney said.

Those who knew Mahler say it was clear he loved his work. In 1970, Mahler founded the language services company Accento. Jenny Carlisle, who was Mahler’s interpreter coordinator and office manager said he continued working until recently.

“He was a short guy, but his personality was huge,” Carlisle said. “He was a people person. I think that’s why he decided to be an interpreter. He loved languages too, but because he loved talking to people and sharing stories.”

Sample of Mike Mahler sketches
Courtesy of Jenny Carlisle
Mike Mahler enjoyed painting and sketching. During his downtime, he'd sit in the courtroom and sketch distorted figures of people, animals and objects.

Carlisle said Mahler would say his job in the courtroom was to be invisible and not judge anyone. Interpreting though wasn’t the only thing he was passionate about. Mahler was also an artist.

“He would take with him a sketch book everywhere and when he wasn’t working, he would be sketching,” Carlisle said. “A lot of his characters are people in the court.”

She said he called some of his sketches “the crazies” because some of the characters have several eyes or their mouths are not where they should be.

“They were just crazy drawings and most of them were inspired by the court,” she said.

Mahler served in the military when he was younger and met his wife when he was deployed to Spain. Carlisle said he fell in love not only with her but also the country. The couple vacationed there regularly during the summer. Mahler spent time on his art and had exhibits there showcasing some of his work.

He even reviewed books for the Embassy of Spain and continued doing that until just before his death. He didn’t slow down, she said.

Although he’s gone now, Carlisle said, his languages services company will continue to operate, serving as a reminder of his legacy.

Got a tip? Email Stella M. Chávez at You can follow Stella on Twitter @stellamchavez.

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Stella M. Chávez is KERA’s immigration/demographics reporter/blogger. Her journalism roots run deep: She spent a decade and a half in newspapers – including seven years at The Dallas Morning News, where she covered education and won the Livingston Award for National Reporting, which is given annually to the best journalists across the country under age 35.