The Pistorius Trial and the Issue of Qualified Court Interpreters

By Gilbert at Legal Language
Posted on 03/28/2014
In In Court, Legal Interpreting



gavel international service of processCourt interpreters in South Africa have stolen the spotlight in the Pistorius trial, but for all the wrong reasons.

Originally known for his impressive athletic prowess despite a severe disability, Olympic sprinter Oscar Pistorius has become a famous and controversial figure for a completely different reason over the past year.

In February 2013, Pistorius shot and killed his girlfriend, Reeva Steenkamp, claiming to have mistaken her for an intruder.

As of March, the case was ongoing and has become the subject of massive controversy in South Africa.

[UPDATE: In September 2014, Oscar Pistorius was found guilty of culpable homicide (roughly the US equivalent of manslaughter), but not the more serious charge of murder.]

One aspect of the case that has stirred a considerable amount of controversy is the issue of court interpreting. The interpreter who had initially offered to interpret from Afrikaans to English did not report for duty, sparking rumors that the interpreter had either turned up to the wrong court or become so overwhelmed with emotion as to be unable to proceed.

Unfortunately, the subsequent court interpreters do not appear to be prepared for the task either.

The Consequences of Inaccurate Court Interpreting

The replacement court interpreter has also come under fire. Trial reports have stated that the interpreter is unskilled and inexperienced.

Despite the South African media’s claims that there have been no concerns regarding interpreters, reports emerged that a witness had to correct the interpreter due to inaccurate translations. A witness eventually became so frustrated that she decided to give up on testifying in Afrikaans and continue her testimony in English. The interpreter left the courtroom due to the pressure.

What’s more, a third court interpreter has also been corrected for inaccuracies.

For example, the term “noises” was interpreted as “gunshots,” and British correspondents have complained that the interpreter is difficult to understand.

These errors and setbacks have caused delays in the proceedings and frustration among all those involved in the case. They also call the qualifications of court interpreters into question.

This is not the first time interpreting has been a source of controversy for South Africa. During Nelson Mandela’s memorial, sign language interpreter Thamsanqa Jantjie incited outrage from the deaf community for incorrect interpreting and erratic behavior, which he later attributed to a mental health condition.

When dealing with legal matters such as a high profile murder case or the funeral of one of the world’s most revered leaders, any interpreters or translators assigned to the case should bear the appropriate qualifications. These repeated and highly publicized incidents have led to embarrassment and decreased credibility.

Stricter Controls for Translators and Interpreters?

With verdicts, rulings and sentencing being dependent upon accurate witness testimonies, are enough precautions being taken when assigning translators and interpreters to important legal assignments?

Standards must always be high and rigid, but the task of assigning translators and interpreters to court cases should warrant even more stringent requirements.

Specific requirements and credentials for court interpreters vary by state in the US, but many states require interpreters to be licensed and accredited.

A professional language service provider will ensure that the interpreters they employ are experienced and possess the skill set necessary to get the job done and properly convey legal testimony.

While there is evidence to suggest that the proper requirements are technically in place in South Africa, two highly publicized events have resulted in serious translation and interpreting faux pas. This indicates that perhaps backgrounds are not checked and skills are not tested as thoroughly as they probably should be.

The lesson to be learned is to choose interpreters and translators with much more discretion in order to prevent further embarrassment – not to mention obstruction of justice – in the future.


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