The state of interpreting in South Africa has been a topic of discussion since the day fake sign language interpreter Thamsanqa Jantjie took the stage at the FNB stadium. File photo: Tsvangirayi Mukwazhi

Pretoria - The state of interpreting in South Africa has been a topic of discussion since the day fake sign language interpreter Thamsanqa Jantjie took the stage at FNB stadium during the memorial service for Nelson Mandela.

Jantjie embarrassed South Africa in the international arena – in front of people like US President Barack Obama, British Prime Minister David Cameron and even rock star Bono from U2.

Three months after the Jantjie incident, as the world focused on South Africa for the murder trial of Paralympian Oscar Pistorius, it was again interpreters who got people talking (and tweeting).

State witness Michelle Burger lost so much confidence in the Afrikaans-English interpreter Veruschka Bosch that she opted to testify in English rather than her mother tongue, Afrikaans.

Last week, the new interpreter in the trial misinterpreted testimony several times.

Defence attorney Barry Roux corrected the interpreter during the testimony of State witness, former policeman Colonel Giliam van Rensburg:

Van Rensburg (in Afrikaans): “… when we arrived there were towels and black garbage bags on the scene.”

Interpreter: “… there was black clothing.”

Van Rensburg: “The person was already dead when the paramedics arrived.”

Interpreter: “The body died on their arrival.”

The Pretoria News spoke to experts about the state of interpreting, specifically legal (court) interpreting. Dr Eleanor Cornelius, senior lecturer in the department of linguistics at the University of Johannesburg, trains interpreters and translators. She is an accredited simultaneous interpreter and has experience in court interpreting.

Cornelius said shoddy legal interpreting in courts could influence the outcome of a case. “If an exact and accurate rendition of the meaning intended by the witness, prosecutor, defence attorney or judge is not given in the target language (i.e. the language interpreted into), the testimony is flawed by the misinterpretation of the interpreter.”

Such misinterpretations could only be picked up and corrected if the presiding officer was proficient in both languages spoken in court.

“If the presiding officer is not proficient in the source language, the officer has to rely fully on the interpreter’s rendition, with the belief that what is presented is correct and accurate,” said Cornelius.

SA Translators’ Institute (Sati) chairman Johan Blaauw said several interpreting mistakes in a trial could lead to findings being influenced by errors.

Cornelius agreed.

“If sections of the testimony are misinterpreted and therefore inaccurate, incomplete or simply false, the result can be that a guilty person walks free, or that an innocent person is sent to jail,” she said.

The high-profile Pistorius “trial of the century” is broadcast live on television and radio to the public.

Cornelius said if interpreting in a case with so much public interest is shoddy, “one can fairly assume that poor interpreting happens daily in most courts.

“One can only imagine, when the stakes are lower and there is less public scrutiny, the interpreting quality will be even worse in other cases”, she said.

Blaauw and Cornelius agreed that proper training and co-operation from the Department of Justice was critical to avoid further international embarrassment.

Speaking more than one language, without proper interpreting training, does not imply that the interpreter is qualified for the job. “After careful selection, interpreters should receive adequate and good quality training – not simply any training,” Cornelius said.

The Pistorius trial, Cornelius said, has highlighted that “interpreting is under-valued and under-estimated”. “It is time decision- and policy-makers start acknowledging the crucial role language plays.”

If the department acknowledged a lack of capacity to render excellent services, it should rather contract the services of accredited, experienced, well-trained interpreters – even if it cost them money, she said.

“The cost of poor interpreting is much higher than the cost of a good interpreter,” she added.

The Department of Justice did not respond to questions about plans to improve interpreting.

Interpreter TRAINING in SA:

There are no dedicated court-interpreting degree qualifications

Unisa’s BA (specialising in court interpreting) was terminated in 2009.

* University of Johannesburg: BA language practice degree (does not only focus on interpreting).

* University of Witwatersrand: diploma in legal interpreting, Honours/Masters in interpreting.

* University of the Free State: national diploma in court interpreting.

* North West University: short courses in simultaneous interpreting.

* Durban University of Technology: translation and interpreting practice programme.

* Stellenbosch University: post-graduate diploma in translation and interpreting.


* Excellent knowledge and command of both working languages.

* Specialised terminology such as the terms used in a courtroom.

* Interpreting, listening and analysing skills.

* Coping with problems during interpreting (such as where there is cultural concepts for which there is no equivalent in the target language).

* Note-taking skills to avoid asking the witness to repeat themselves.

* Courtroom procedures: knowing the physical layout of the courtroom and where to stand; knowing the role-players in a courtroom and being familiar with court proceedings.

* Ethics and professional issues: being familiar with codes of good conduct, ethical considerations.

* Stress management.


* Careful attention should be paid to the recruitment and qualifications of interpreters.

* Training courses should be carefully designed and should address the competencies required of court interpreters.

* Quality assurance measures need to be put in place in all courts (not only in high-profile cases).

* Interpreter testing could be done at regular intervals.

* Accreditation of some sort should be introduced.

* Refresher courses should be offered.

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