by Paula Arturo (from her blog, Laws & Languages)
Just last month we looked at a UWS Research that revealed the Importance of Accurate Court Interpreting in criminal trials. The research had found that without proper specialist training, court interpreters tend to make technical/linguistic mistakes that can lead to inadequate legal outcomes. When facing juries in criminal trials, research conductor Sandra Hale claims non-English speakers “are completely in the hands of their interpreter. […] If even the smallest change is made to the person’s style or the content of their speech, the believability of their testimony could be affected.”
Today, judges in Spain seem to be confirming that same thesis. What these judges are telling us is that when facing criminal trials, foreigners are completely defenseless if they find themselves in the hands of a bad translator or interpreter; and, according to these judges, that is exactly what is happening. Members of Judges for Democracy (in Spanish, “Jueces para la Democracia” or JpD) told Spanish newspaper El País that court interpreters are not properly trained for the criminal process or trials in general. JpD judges claim they have been observing serious problems with court translators and interpreters for quite some time and have asked the regional government in Madrid to take action.
Among these serious problems, Judge Luis Aurelio Gonzáles Martín claims that “often times, translators make very free interpretations and defendants find themselves not knowing what they are being accused of.” Another problem identified by these judges is that court interpreters have difficulties providing simultaneous interpretation during trials, again leaving defendants in a position in which they may not understand what is happening in court. According to these judges, the above problems don’t just render defendants defenseless, but they also violate fundamental rights by hindering due process.
As a translator, I understand the difficulties of simultaneous interpretation. Contrary to what most people think, simultaneous interpretation requires a completely different set of skills from written translation. It requires the ability to speak in one language while listening in another language at the exact same time. That is not easy, and in my opinion interpreters don’t really get enough credit or understanding most of the time. There is a reason why UN interpreters are rotated every 40 minutes, it has to do with the level of stress and challenges interpreters have to deal with when doing their jobs. An excellent example of what happens when you push an interpreter too far was Muammar Abu Minyar al-Gaddafi’s interpreter literally collapsing last year after 75 minutes of simultaneous interpretation from Arabic into English at the UN. A job that can only be done for 40 minutes at a time before the person doing the job completely burns out is clearly not easy and deserves respect.
However, although I hate to admit it, not all interpreters do such a great job. Not all interpreters train and acquire the right set of skills for interpreting and what’s worst, many have little or no understanding of legal vocabulary or courtroom jargon. The same applies to legal translators, who often “specialize” in “legal translation” but wouldn’t be able to explain basic legal concepts even if their lives depended on it. So when it’s someone else’s life depending on it, they sometimes do more harm than good. The truth is not everyone claiming to be a translator or interpreter out there is really qualified for the job.
Not that anyone’s asking me for my opinion, but instead of simply filing complaints about interpreters and translators, I think what these judges need is a better screening system. You can easily tell good translators and interpreters apart from the bad ones by simply looking at the basics: their educational background; whether or not they specialize; if they claim to be specialized linguists, what they base that claim on; whether they translate into their mother tongue only or they venture into languages in which their skills might be weaker, etc. A lot of times the first thing people look at when choosing a language professional is price, and that’s when you get stuck with court interpreters and translators that can’t tell manslaughter apart from murder. The real deal is usually pricey and harder to find, but absolutely worth it. When it comes to matters such as criminal proceedings where a person’s freedom, or even life, is at stake finding good translators and interpreters is not a choice, it’s a moral and legal obligation –and in many cases, even a constitutional right.