Oscar Pistorius looks at the time as he sits in court ahead of his trial at the North Gauteng High Court. Proceedings were delayed for an hour and a half after the Afrikaans-English interpreter, who initially agreed to interpret, was suddenly unavailable. Picture: Themba Hadebe

Pretoria - Interpreters in the murder trial of Olympian Oscar Pistorius caused a stir both in the courtroom and on social media on the first day of his trial.

For those in the courtroom, proceedings were delayed for an hour and a half after the Afrikaans-English interpreter, who initially agreed to interpret, was suddenly unavailable.

For those watching the proceedings at home, the substitute interpreter’s attempt was frustrating and delayed proceedings.

Rumours were doing the rounds that the original interpreter had arrived at the Pretoria Magistrate’s Court instead of the High Court on Madiba Street.

Other reports suggested the same interpreter was not up to the task of interpreting Pistorius’s trial and broke down in tears.

The Department of Justice issued a statement apologising for the delay.

“Alternative interpreters were being sourced at the time when the court got under way at 11.30am,” its statement read.

Dr Eleanor Cornelius, senior lecturer in the department of linguistics at the University of Johannesburg, trains interpreters and translators as part of her work. She said the performance of the Afrikaans-English interpreter responsible to convey witness Michelle Burger’s testimony was “unacceptable”.

Cornelius is an accredited simultaneous interpreter and has experience in court interpreting.

“It is not acceptable to ask a witness to repeat any part of his/her testimony – as this is unprofessional – and it delays the case,” she said.

“This may also cause the witness stress as she/ he may lose trust in the interpreter who is supposed to render the testimony fluently and accurately in the target language,” she said.

South African Translators’ Institute chairman Johan Blaauw agreed.

“In the first place, it was unprofessional of the first interpreter to just abandon the task. If you accept a job, you go ahead and do it.

“The second person completely lost the witness’s trust so much so that she (the witness) opted to speak English,” he said.

Cornelius also said the high-profile nature of the case should not add to the stress of the task because the highly specialised skill of interpreting is “always stressful”.

“If the person is well qualified and well trained there is no reason why they cannot handle a high-profile case,” she said.

This is the second time an interpreter has been the focus of an international, high-profile event in South Africa.

In December, Thamsanqa Jantjie, caused a stir when he allegedly interpreted “fake” sign language at the memorial service for Nelson Mandela at FNB Stadium.

“It is high time that people start realising that quality needs to be assured by using only well-trained, skilled and accredited interpreters,” Cornelius said about the “unprofessional, incompetent interpreters in high profile international events”.

“After Mandela’s passing, this was the second most important international event in South Africa since democracy in 1994 and the interpreters are dragging our name through the mud,” Blaauw said.


@BelzMntungwa: Now that the interpreter is quiet I’m, totally confident via Michelle. #OscarTrial

@judith_mwaya: “@maneta_m: I have 1 question. Where the hell do they find these translators/ interpreters!! Seriously #OscarTrial”I wonder?????

@jeffersohn: #Burger speaks English enough not to need an interpreter confusing her. #OscarTrial

@Jayninho707: Quite shocking how Burger speaks better English than the so-called “translator”. #OscarTrial

[email protected]_z: Can they please use this short adjournment to get a new translator for Burger? It's quite hard for her hey #OscarTrial

@StellaWaAfrika: I don’t know Afrikaans but damn, I don’t trust this interpreter #OscarTrial

@NewzaNeo: Our interpreters are embarrassing us on a global scale #OscarTrial #OscaPistorius #afrikaansInterpreter

[email protected]_sa_sian: Is there even a need for this interpreter? #OscarTrial

@bongi1_n: ASAP @alicia_stieger: Can someone please fire the interpreter in the #OscarTrial!

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Twitter: @LalivZ

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