What happens when court interpreting goes wrong?

What happens when court interpreting goes wrong?

There are few places where accurate translation is as critical as in a courtroom. Even a slight change in expression can mean the difference between justice and an unfair outcome. 

When the stakes are so high, all parties must ensure that their translations and interpreting are accurate, swift and convey the intended meaning.

In this article, we look at the serious (and not so serious) consequences of getting things wrong and examine what steps you can take to ensure your translation and interpretation services help you solve problems - not compound them.

Verbal Interpretation in Court

The issues raised by poor quality translations more often manifest themselves verbally - interpreters can (understandably) struggle in the pressure of a courtroom. Even the most experienced expert witnesses can wilt in the heat of cross-examination, so it’s no surprise that interpreters and non-native speakers can find matters difficult. 

Poor interpretation and translation can cost time and money, but the most serious outcome of poor legal interpretation could be that a guilty accused walks free, or innocent is imprisoned. In a Northern Irish case in 2014, a trial of two Lithuanian accused persons collapsed over “inept” translations. The men were accused of a string of very serious sexual crimes and were later convicted, and one was imprisoned for 18 years.   

In that case, the Public Prosecution Service enlisted the services of an unregistered linguist. Errors in this person's translation were only spotted by other interpreters and the original trial collapsed, resulting in a £30k bill for the taxpayer to foot.

Had the errors not been spotted in time, it’s no stretch to imagine that the errors may have been so serious as to result in an unfair trial and the acquittal of the accused. While that is an extreme situation, these errors certainly resulted in financial loss and, more importantly, a great deal more stress and suffering for the victims.

The profile of the trial is no guarantee of best-in-class interpretation, nor is the prevalence or status of languages within a country.

This was brought into focus in the Oscar Pistorius trial of 2014. This case was inarguably one of the highest-profile cases of the 21st century, and what’s more, it involved South Africa’s two most widely-spoken languages: English and Afrikaans.

In this case, interpreters were criticised for “ropey translations”, and there was a delay to the start of the trial as one interpreter failed to appear. 

At one stage in the trial, an interpreter was criticised for interpreting “noises” as “gunshots”, arguably imputing her own interpretation of the events into her related narrative.

Indeed, even the use of the Colloquialism “ropey” to describe the quality of interpretation throws the issue into sharp relief. An interpreter without a sufficiently nuanced command of idiomatic English may fail to grasp this analogy. 

Literal translations can be a source of levity in what can be an otherwise staid environment. Aphorisms, analogies and turns of phrase and metaphors rarely translate well. 

For example, we describe heavy rain as “raining cats and dogs”, whereas a Haitian would say “the dogs are drinking from their noses” (which is arguably better!); however, this comes out in a literal translation as “dogs are in the nose”. Not especially useful to describe driving conditions!

Other examples include a person “having the fly” (or a chip on their shoulder) and a person “arriving on a shrimp sandwich” (being born wealthy or acquiring wealth without effort).

These examples are likely to lead to nothing more than a red face for the interpreter, but there can be more serious consequences.

Idioms & context in legal translation

In languages which are similar, there is a risk of the interpreter using “false cognates”. These are words that share an etymological root but which have different meanings. 

In one case in the US, a Spanish-speaking man was accused of a Road traffic offence. In US legal terminology, these are (as we are well aware from the world of film & TV) known as “traffic violations”. The charge was relayed to him by his interpreter as a “violación”. 

The man cried out in horror that he “didn’t rape anyone”. 

The word “violación” does not mean “violation” in Spanish, but “rape”. The correct word is “infracción”.

Relieved, the man pleaded guilty to the actual charge. This would be comical if it weren’t for the seriousness of the charge. While this is an egregious and easily-remedied example of inaccurate translation in legal proceedings, it isn’t hard to imagine how a less-obvious slip could pass the scrutiny of all parties - including the Judge. 

Such verbal inaccuracies are often caught and handled at the time, leaving no mark on proceedings other than a light-hearted footnote. However, if the translation in question goes to the very heart of the matter, then things are altogether more serious.

Mistranslated documents can go right to the heart of the matter, fundamentally changing the outcome. 

In the case of Occidental Exploration and Production Company v. The Republic of Ecuador, Professor Brigitte Stern provided a forceful dissenting opinion centred on the issue of a written translation from Spanish to English, which set out the criteria for the validity of a written document.

“I will also show that had the translations concerning the criteria of inexistence been correct and the original Spanish texts been really taken into account, the conclusions arrived at by the majority would have been impossible to sustain.”

There is no need to retread the case in detail here; suffice to say that an inaccurate translation from Spanish to English may have led to an incorrect application of the law. The original (Spanish) text spoke of “Solemnidades” and “Solemnidades exigidas por la ley”. The English text used “legal requirements” as a translation to both phrases.

The Court directed itself to the inaccurate English translation and, as a result, according to the dissenting opinion of Professor Brigitte Stern, arrived at the incorrect conclusion. 

It is noticeable that the word “solemnidad” and the phrase "solemnidades exigidas por la ley" are translated as “legal requirement”, which of course is not the same thing. Suffice it to say here that the original and authentic Spanish version completely disproves the majority’s analysis of the conditions for inexistence

Such interpretation issues can be the subject of tortuous legal debate when only one language is in issue, but the addition of another complicates matters even further. 

When it comes to legal interpretation, accuracy and speed can save you time, money and the possibility of an adverse outcome for your client. 

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