Johannesburg - They sit in their offices translating their work with the help of a dictionary, and if there’s a word they are battling with, they can easily Google it or call around.
Yet “they have the audacity to criticise court interpreters who work in a highly pressured environment without the luxury of referring to a dictionary or the internet when a word they have never heard of before crops up during a trial”.
William Mnisi, a high court interpreter with over 30 years’ experience, said the criticism that had been levelled at them, especially from translators and linguistics professors, was unwarranted and wrong.
Mnisi, whose speciality is Afrikaans but also interprets Tswana, Zulu, English, Sotho and Swati, is the secretary of the National Interpreters Association of South Africa.
Since the start of Oscar Pistorius’s murder trial, court interpreters’ ability to do their job properly has been questioned. The South African Translators’ Institute (Sati) has been vocal in this regard.
However, Mnisi said the institute had no authority to attack them.
“They think they know what we are doing, but they don’t. They are translators. They have the luxury of dictionaries, they have the luxury of sitting in the office phoning around if they have a word they don’t understand.
“For an interpreter, there and then on his feet, he must put across what the person is saying. Off the cuff, you have to tell the court what the person is saying. People who don’t understand the field will come up with these kinds of attacks,” he said.
The criticism started on the first day of Pistorius’s trial when the interpreter abandoned her job. She had only six months’ experience.
This is despite the fact interpreters need about seven years’ experience in the lower courts before being sent to interpret in the more complex cases in the high court.
Mnisi conceded that she should not have been selected as she was inexperienced.
“The department (of Justice and Constitutional Development) solely depends on us to find suitable people for a case. They are doing a lot and pump money into this, and we are actually failing them,” he said.
However, Sati’s Johan Blaauw said they had “the fullest right” to comment on the quality and did not need to stand in court to say something was correct or not.
Blaauw said although he had never done court interpreting, he normally interpreted at conferences, and also did simultaneous interpreting at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission hearings.
“In court, you listen and remember the wording, then interpret. As an interpreter at conferences, you interpret as the person is speaking, and the pressure is more than at court; hence we can comment on the quality of interpreting. You can’t deny that the quality we have seen does not comply with international norms.
“This person can’t say we don’t know what we are talking about. I probably know more than he does,” he said.
Blaauw agreed that the glare of the media could be playing a role in how someone interprets but he said it was the same at high-profile conferences.
The current interpreter has not fared better and has been criticised for making errors.
Mnisi conceded she had made a few mistakes, but said they were not so serious as to jeopardise the case, as many had suggested.