Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Interpreting Justice

Accuracy under pressure is a must for the tribunal’s band of courtroom interpreters – but political awareness is often just as vital.
By Samira Puskar

“High level of concentration, split second accuracy, clear delivery, ability to work under continuous stress,” reads part of a current advert for an interpreter to work at the Hague tribunal. Also needed is the “stamina to interpret not only technically difficult legal arguments, but also emotionally charged testimonies of war victims”.

For anyone attending the proceedings at The Hague, whether judge, lawyer, defendant, witness or observer, the role of the interpreter is key. Unless they happen to speak four or five different languages themselves – fluently – they will rely on the interpreter to relay the mass of evidence, the arguments, the cross-examinations and, finally, the judgements.

There are more than 150 interpreters and translators speaking five languages – English, French, Bosnian-Croatian-Serbian, Albanian and, as of February, Macedonian – working at the tribunal.

And former interpreters and language experts agree that the high-profile part of the job – simultaneous translation in the courtroom – is not an easy one.

“It is an extremely strenuous job mentally,” Susan Berk-Seligson, a linguistics professor at Vanderbilt University, told IWPR. “It requires the utmost concentration.”

In fact the job is so critical that few interpreters are prepared to talk about it, even after they leave their posts. They often have access to the behind-the-scenes working of the tribunal, and are well aware that confidentiality is a sensitive issue.

A recent Hollywood film called The Interpreter, starring Nicole Kidman, played up the kinds of dilemmas an interpreter could face. It offered a scenario where an interpreter overhears a death threat through her work at the United Nations in New York. But aside from the thriller plot line, the film also exposed the kinds of split second choices about language that any interpreter must make. In one line, Kidman’s character notes, “If I interpreted ‘gone’ as ‘dead’ I'd be out of a job.”

In the Hague courtrooms, a difference in interpreting a certain word or phrase can lead to a difference in understanding.

For example, the difference between the Bosnian word "skloniti" or to “move aside”, and "ukloniti", meaning to “remove”, is a subtle one. Last month, at the trial of Sefer Halilovic, former chief-of-staff of the Bosnian army, the interpreter accurately translated the word when a witness described the accused's order to relocate two children who had witnessed a murder. But had the interpreter made a mistake, the difference would have been dramatic, and would have placed the accused’s actions in a completely different light.

Before the Yugoslav wars, the language spoken across the region was known as Serbo-Croatian. The term is no longer politically acceptable, and the tribunal has had to develop a mixture of elements from all the versions of this language, known as Bosnian/Croatian/Serbian or BCS for short. While linguistics experts agree that these three languages are not, in fact, different, the tribunal has to be seen to be treating them all equally for political reasons.

Vojislav Seselj - the Serbian radical politician who is facing trial on charges of crimes against humanity and violations of the laws and customs of war - claimed in 2003 that he did not understand the 30-page indictment that was read out in his pre-trial hearing because the court translator was speaking Croatian, not Serbian.

He claimed in a letter to the court that the interpreter used “so-called Croatisms, which do not adhere to the spirit and sense of the Serbian language”. Seselj cited the word “count”, which Serbs pronounce as “tachka” while the Croatian form is “tochka”. Another example was the word “pagan”. In Serbian, the word is “paganin” but the court translator reportedly used the Croatian “poganin”.

Set in the context of Seselj’s incessant stream of complaints about the tribunal – he has even accused the court’s security guards of arousing him sexually during routine searches – his views on language may be easy to dismiss. But the consummate politician has used the language issue to claim that the tribunal has a “very pronounced Croatian and Muslim bias” – a claim which has played well with certain sections of public opinion in Serbia.

A senior figure in the Conference and Language Services section at the tribunal told IWPR that dialect differences – between Serbian and Croatian, for example – do not in fact pose significant problems, because the interpreters are well prepared and consult widely, to make sure they provide acceptable translations.

Situated a metre or so above the courtrooms in small glass booths, each interpreter has detailed maps of the Balkans, dictionaries, post-it notes on the windows, and another interpreter as back up, ready to take over at the end of a half-hour shift.

Each interpreter has their own style – one uses her hands to help her express the precise meaning and emotions of whoever is speaking. Another jabs with his pen to help emphasize different words.

Their workload is limited to four days a week and they typically work on the same trial for purposes of continuity, save for the instances when they fill in for one another.

Interpreters at The Hague are required to have a college degree and years of experience. “Accuracy is most important,” said the senior tribunal source. “The job is demanding – they work at a high level of performance.”

Berk-Seligson’s research into court interpreters suggests that most tend to be native speakers, saying, “The best interpreters are ones that grew up speaking one language at home, and one outside the home.”

Berk-Seligson, who has researched legal interpretation using mock courtrooms in the United States, believes that the quality of interpretation can “potentially make the difference between a defendant being found guilty or innocent”.

She gives the example of interpreters who are very hesitant, making the person testifying appear less confident. Or those who add politeness markers while translating, such as “yes, ma’am” and “yes, sir,” making the witness appear more trustworthy and competent.

“Most of the time they don’t even realise they’re doing it,” she said. “But these little things that seem insignificant can end up making a big difference.”

Samira Puskar is an IWPR intern in The Hague.