South Africa is a multilingual society with 11 official languages. While these language options can easily be used and switched in social or even economic settings, there is a one moment where the liberty to speak a language one is highly fluent in is highly exercised. The court of law is the case in point. The South African justice and perhaps many justice systems around the world demand that in the interest of a fair trial, both the plaintiff and the defendant should be allowed to speak and communicate in languages they are at ease with and if possible the mother tongue.
In a society like the South African one where so many languages are spoken, the need for court interpreters is therefore ever-present. The Oscar Pistorius trial has received global attention for many reasons; perhaps today the focus can be given to the interpretation aspect of the trial. The language mix in an intricate trial of this magnitude was always going to be heavy. The culture of predominantly Dutch descendants is still strong in South Africa and the trial has had Afrikaans speaking witnesses coming through, there have also been English-speaking individuals. To add to the interesting mix and scenario, the interpreter was a lady of African descent who for obvious reasons has learnt English and Afrikaans through the course of her education or social life. The question of whether she can interpret in languages which are not her mother tongues was always going to come up.
Glaring mistakes which have seen witnesses as well as the court and global audience lost in translation have been noted. Some of the examples in this regard include when a witness used the Afrikaans word “deurmekaar” which was translated as “confused” prompting queries from defence lawyers. One of the Afrikaans speaking witnesses also testified about finding the deceased clothes covered in towels, which were rendered as “hand clothes” by the interpreter. Apart from these mistakes, witnesses in more than one instance have been forced to switch languages while on the stand just to minimise the interpretation mistakes. Of course such mistakes have not gone unnoticed with inaccurate interpretations being used to poke holes in the case and casting doubts on genuine efforts made by different parties to have a fair trial.
The Oscar Pistorius trial and the interpretation debacle has once again highlighted the need for interpreters to undergo intensive training and if possible go back to school for refresher courses. This case has also pointed to the fact that the country still needs a lot of financial investment in this area to ensure that this noble profession makes a meaningful contribution to the country’s social and economic development.