Durban - Language experts are calling for the government to build capacity so that official indigenous languages can be used during legal proceedings.
This comes after a senior KwaZulu-Natal judge cautioned magistrates not to conduct entire trials in any of the nine official indigenous languages because of “budgetary and administration considerations”.
Judge King Ndlovu, with Judge Philip Nkosi concurring, said the use of these languages was a “constitutional noble ideal” but there were still no proper structures to adequately transcribe court records for appeals and reviews.
Judge Ndlovu said an accused person did not have the right to have his trial conducted in a language of his choice, although he was entitled to understand the language, either directly or through interpretation.
The judge said it would be a constitutional ideal “to cherish the day that every court operated in the language predominantly used in its area”, but that ideal had proved elusive or impractical.
“To my knowledge, at the moment, there are no structures in place to attend to transcription of court records in all languages… it follows therefore that undue delays will occur which could have dire consequences for the accused.”
This was because of difficulties in articulating legal terminology, including quotes from statutes and legal precedents, into Zulu, problems with translations of court annexures and statements from police dockets and transcribing court records for reviews and appeals.
Head of the Zulu dictionary unit attached to the University of Zululand, Mpume Mbatha, said it was only fair to use an indigenous language in cases where all parties could understand and speak it fluently.
“Sometimes important information is lost in translation, resulting in the magistrate ruling differently than they would have, had all the parties understood each other,” said Mbatha.
His sentiments were echoed by Professor Sihawu Ngubane, chairman of the Academic and Non-Fiction Authors’ Association of South Africa.
“They should seek ways to make transcribing less of a burden, rather than quickly opt to use English with interpreters,” said Ngubane.
He conceded that indigenous languages lacked some of the terms used in the judiciary system, especially those in Latin.
“The University of the Witwatersrand and UKZN have bodies working on language development directories with more than 100 000 terms, some from the judiciary and science fields. Such initiatives will go a long way towards bridging the gap.”
UKZN Zulu/English translation expert Thokozani Khuzwayo said interpreters could translate judiciary transcripts even if some of the direct Zulu terms were not yet available.
“Due to the sensitivity of judiciary matters, I think it’s always best when the accused and the complainant are cross-examined in their mother tongue,” she said.