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Translating justice: Interpreters keep international courts running

International courts often operate in dozens of languages and interpreters, whose job it is to simultaneously translate the proceedings for everyone in the courtroom, are critical to ensuring things move smoothly.

THE HAGUE, Netherlands (CN) — When the trial of an ex-police chief from Mali opened before the International Criminal Court in 2019, the defendant protested his innocence in Arabic. Three years earlier, the former commander of a Christian extremist group in Uganda denied the charges against him in Acholi. Their legal teams argued in French and English. 

Under the Rome Statute, the 2002 treaty that created the ICC, anyone on the docket at the court in The Hague must have proceedings presented in a language they “fully understand and speak.” Lawyers and judges are required to present in either English or French. In proceedings with dozens of witnesses, this creates a complicated system of interpretation and translation. 

“Translation is text, interpretation is speech,” said Ahmed El Khamloussy, who interprets French, English and Arabic at the ICC.

International courts also need thousands of pages of written documents translated, from transcripts to evidence. But translation has the benefit of time, while interpretation must be simultaneous for hearings to proceed. 

Humans have needed interpreters since separate groups speaking different languages have needed to interact. Political leaders have long relied on “whisper interpretation,” where an interpreter speaks directly into the ear of whomever they are interpreting for. 

War crimes tribunals

The post-WW2 Nuremberg trials are cited as the first courtroom process to see the extensive use of broadcast interpretation. For nearly a year in1945-46, the International Military Tribunal tried 21 of the most prominent surviving Nazi leaders. The proceedings were simultaneously translated into English, Russian, German and French to ensure the legal representatives from the Allied countries understood what was being said as the trial was taking place. 

Because of its worldwide mandate, the ICC faces specific challenges with interpretation, but all international courts rely on interpreters to function.

At the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia – the United Nations tribunal established to prosecute the war crimes during the Yugoslav wars of the 1990s – the working languages were English and French, but proceedings had to be available in Bosnian-Croatian-Serbian, Albanian and Macedonian for defendants.

“Interpretation is a very stressful occupation,” said Christina Pribićević-Zorić, who headed the translation and interpretation department at the ICTY. The International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, the Special Tribunal for Lebanon and others have similar structures. 

International institutions 

Following the Second World War, several judicial bodies were established as part of an effort to prevent the horrors of the conflict from occurring again. The high court of the United Nations, the International Court of Justice, was established in 1945. It operates in both French and English, with simultaneous translation available for both languages. The court can also allow the use of other languages on request. 

Other courts created to bring European countries closer together have to account for the linguistic differences of their members. Although the official working language of the European Union’s high court, the European Court of Justice, is French, the court allows lawyers to make their arguments in any of the 24 official EU languages. For the judges, opposing counsel and the audience in the Luxembourg-based courtroom, simultaneous translation is available. 

At the European Court of Human Rights, a court created by the post-WW2 European Convention on Human Rights, the working languages are English and French but applications can be made in any official language of the member states. With 46 countries - some with multiple languages, like Switzerland and Belgium - the court must account for more than 50 languages. 

A small army of translators

The ICC employs some 50 staff members to cover interpretation and translation, and brings on additional freelancers as needed. The court is currently holding hearings and conducting investigations in around 30 languages.

More than 70 interpreters are employed by the European Court of Justice, which also sometimes hires more freelancers when required. In addition, the court employs some 600 lawyer linguists who are responsible for translating written arguments and court decisions. 

During her time at the ICTY, Pribićević-Zorić said juggling all of the interpretation requirements was challenging. She managed some 170 staff for interpretation and translation. The tribunal operated for nearly 25 years, holding 10,800 trial days and generating 2.5 million pages of transcripts. 

The work is strenuous. Correct interpretation is crucial for proceedings and any mistake may cause confusion. Interpreters typically work in pairs in 30-minute shifts. They can be given notes or pleadings ahead of time, so they can prepare, but many aspects of legal proceedings are spontaneous. No one knows exactly what a witness will say or what question a judge may ask. 

The stress can be even higher for interpreters like El Khamloussy, the ICC interpreter who often must hear witnesses describe violent and horrific acts. Psychological counseling is available for interpreters at the ICC and other courts to help manage the emotional toil.

“It’s a tough but gratifying job,” El Khamloussy said.

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