The efforts of interpreters in the Oscar Pistorius trial over the past few weeks have highlighted the complexities of communication across languages – and the pitfalls of miscommunication.
For one of South Africa’s most high-profile trials, the justice system has been unable to provide consistently satisfactory translation of evidence.
While technically the crux of the translations was generally accurate – the judge and the legal teams would have settled for nothing less – nuances were often lost as the interpreters battled to keep up.
One of the casualties was the distinction between the subjunctive and indicative moods. For those who associate moods with difficult teenagers or disgruntled spouses, in this context mood is a grammatical device that distinguishes between the potential and the actual. For instance, whether a witness said something could happen or did happen. The difference is crucial.
Another disjuncture came when the translation condensed an account by a witness, failing to reflect the horror of the witness’s experience and the drama of the moment that triggered it.
On a few occasions the witnesses, frustrated by the poor choice of words used by the interpreter to convey their meaning, chose to fall back on a second language to get their message across. But the challenges of accurate interpretation go beyond vocabulary.
Meaning is not simply a question of semantics: finding the right word. It is also contained in the logical sequencing of phrases and sentences. If these are presented in a different order, the focus of meaning shifts.
And, in the case of the spoken word, the use of vocal stress, the way the voice is pitched and the pace of delivery, can be just as important in clarifying or obscuring reality. In one instance, the testimony of a witness, dispassionately presenting technical evidence, was transformed into something frighteningly different by the emotional delivery of the interpreter – clearly battling her own anxiety at finding herself suddenly in the global spotlight.
All these factors feed into the credibility of the witness in the ears of the listeners. In this case, potential misunderstandings were detected and rectified by the legal teams. But critics can only ask themselves: what sort of justice is meted out at run of the mill trials of people not fluent in English, the language commonly used in court?
Author and academic Rosemary Moeketsi has pointed out that, among other things, African languages lack equivalents of the words “plead” and “guilt”.
Speedy and accurate translation in a high pressure court situation is particularly challenging and we can only sympathise with the valiant efforts of the interpreters to fulfill their duties.
But their failings underscore the weaknesses in the under-skilled justice system, as well as in the broader economy, where important jobs go unfilled and the jobless battle to find work.
In this sorry situation language diversity plays a major role. Pupils who fail or simply underachieve at school are generally those who receive their tuition in a language that is not their mother tongue. In a country of 11 official languages this is unavoidable.
Given the challenges presented by language diversity, interventions are needed at various levels. In a 1999 paper Moeketsi noted: “The South African court interpreter is normally the only court official who comes from the same linguistic, social, and cultural background as the defendant.” She proposed the role of court interpreter in South Africa be redefined to avoid possible miscarriages of justice.
“A big part of the problem may be solved by providing officiating officers and other court personnel with a rigorous training in the nature of court interpreting.
“Until then, the question will remain whether the South African court interpreter will be a mere conduit that transfers a message from a source to a target, or a linguistic and cultural broker who wields power and is therefore an essential courtroom professional whose duty is not only to language but to the proper administration of justice.”
In schools, students should not be left to somehow muddle through. They should be given extensive support in their transition from home language to the medium of tuition.
Addressing the challenges of language diversity will go a long way towards accelerating economic growth.