Interpreters help people from different cultures to communicate effectively, in spite of language differences by translating orally what one person has said into a language that others can understand. Interpreting blunders at Oscar Pistorius's murder trial have seen witnesses lost in translation and left translators outside the court furious.With 11 official languages one could expect South Africa's courts to be well equipped to handle testimony in whatever the tongue. But during two weeks of testimony in the State vs. Oscar Pistorius, a string of Afrikaans speaking witnesses have been forced to switch to English to avoid being misinterpreted.
“Any interpreter should be trustworthy and responsible as incorrect interpretations may have far reaching consequences,” says Monique Rissen-Harrisberg, CEO of one of South Africa’s leading communication training companies, The Voice Clinic. “Our court interpreters should have a good command of languages and fluency in speech, have good hearing and speak with a clear voice,” Rissen-Harrisberg added.
One court-appointed interpreter- perhaps cognisant of the whirlwind that engulfed a fake sign language interpreter at Nelson Mandela's memorial, reportedly fled after learning she was to work on such a high-profile case. During the first week of the trial, Pistorius's neighbour, Michelle Burger, began to testify in Afrikaans about hearing screams and gunshots on the night of Reeva Steenkamp's death, but was forced to stop to correct the struggling interpreter. When Burger said events after the shooting were "deurmekaar" it was translated as "confused" prompting defence lawyers suggest her recollection of events might also be confused.Direct translations such as “whindbuks for “windbuks” and “blood spot” instead of “blood spatter “
Burger was forced to explain she meant "chaotic" and later opted to switch to English instead. On Thursday when former police officer Giliam van Rensburg took the stand there was yet more evidence of bungling. Again speaking in Afrikaans, Van Rensburg described finding the lifeless body of the athlete's girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp covered in towels, which were rendered "hand clothes" by the interpreter.” Several witnesses and experts are Afrikaans speaking and it is important that the translations are accurate as it might contain vital evidence,” says Rissen Harrisberg. Despite being able to communicate in English, many, like Burger, chose to testify in Afrikaans because they felt more at ease in their mother tongue. Like Burger, others also switched to English mid-testimony or even mid-sentence out of frustration at poor interpreting. Lawyers for the prosecution and the defence have also interrupted proceedings to correct translations.
Experts worry these errors may have serious consequences for the outcome of the trial.” Inaccuracies could affect the final outcome,” explains Rissen- Harrisberg.
Switching to a second language is sometime traumatic to the witness and they are not always able to express themselves correctly as they sometimes do not have an extensive vocabulary in their second language,” says Rissen Harrisberg. “Choosing a wrong word could have far reaching consequences, “says Rissen- Harrisberg
Defence lawyer Barry Roux has repeatedly pounced on inaccurate translations to poke holes in the state's argument .He also tried to portray police forensic expert Gerhard Vermeulen as careless. The Afrikaans speaker said he did not "bother" to investigate certain pieces of evidence which fell outside his brief. Interpreters differ from translators in that interpreters concentrate on the spoken language, or signed language if interpreting from or into South African Sign Language (SASL), and on the emotions and attitude of the speaker, while the translator deals with written language. Training as a court interpreter involves undergoing a language test. Successful candidates are appointed temporarily and work under the supervision of a chief court interpreter. They must pass a further language test administered by the inspector of interpreters to be appointed to probation. After the probation period of 12 months they attend a theoretical and practical course. On completion of the course the interpreter is allowed to work independently.
“Having translation problems in a high-profile trial, is worrying,” says Rissen-Harrisberg. “Our court translators need to be better qualified and equipped to translate effectively on a very high level beyond any reproach. “Court translators should speak clearly with total confidence, Rissen-Harrisberg concludes.