"It's like comedy." Claire Khatan, court interpreter for more than 20 years, is showing how the theatricality of the court situation can be reduced to farce when sub-standard interpreters are hired. "Two people are trying to understand each other, but they come from different worlds. They mistakenly think they're communicating, but to anybody who knows both worlds, they're just creating absurdities."
Present resources, however, mean that there are few who will pick up on the discrepancies between, for instance, the world of an Acholi speaker (from Uganda) or a Lingala speaker (from Zaire), and that of an English speaker. And while mistakes of translation can be uncomfortably laughable when uncovered, Claire Khatan is one of many who are aware that those that are hidden by ignorance could bring tragic consequences from a legal system that bases itself on words.
Legal legend still tells of the serious misinterpretation concerning Iqbal Begum, who in 1981 was convicted for murdering her husband. Her solicitor had tried to work out what her admissions were with the help of a Pakistani accountant acting as interpreter. She pleaded guilty at the trial, but the judge adjourned the case to ensure that she understood the difference between murder and manslaughter.
When an affirmative answer was returned, he had no option but to pass a life sentence. Three years later, however, it was revealed that although the interpreter at her trial was a native Gujarati and Hindi speaker, the only language he shared with Mrs Iqbal was Urdu. It was agreed at the appeal that she, a native Punjabi speaker, was not proficient enough in Urdu to understand the difference between manslaughter and murder, despite similarities between the two languages. Her murder conviction was subsequently quashed, and a sentence substituted that allowed her immediate release.
The case, which is cited both by the Nuffield Interpreter Project in its report on court interpreters (Access to Justice 1993), and by the International Association of Conference Interpreters in its magazine Communicate, is obviously an extreme example of the miscarriages of justice that occur through faulty translation. But whether extreme or slight, such linguistic slips are in direct contravention of Article 6 of the European Convention on Human Rights which demands, when describing the concept of a fair trial, that anyone charged with a criminal offence has the right to be "informed properly, in a language which (s)/he understands and in detail, of the nature and the cause of the accusation against him".
It has not proved simple to tackle such abuse of human rights. Leanne Hedden, chief clerk at Thanet House (which deals with immigration appeals), has found over the past 18 months that the courses she implemented to improve standards of court interpreting need to deal with areas beyond accurate translation. "We educate interpreters in body language; we don't want them to be aggressive and intimidate the client. And although we cover 100 languages, and issue forms to make sure that clients ask for exactly the right interpreter both at the start of the case and two weeks before their case goes to court, it is not always possible to supply the very obscure languages."
There are lawyers who will complain, however, that even now the more common languages are not as accessible as they should be. Duran Seddon, a barrister at Garden Court Chambers, London, says: "I've seen problems emerge when an interpreter speaking Hindi was needed but someone speaking Urdu as their first language was supplied. The inappropriateness of this was revealed through mistakes that arose during the trial." And Mr Justice Brooke, whose chairmanship of the Ethnic Minorities Committee of the Judicial Studies Board had allowed him to observe many problems with interpreters, adds: "Asian solicitors have often told me the standard of interpretation in court is poor."
Raza Husain, another barrister from Garden Court, discusses awareness of more obvious problems: "I've been involved in a case recently where the Tamil interpreter was so incompetent he had to be sent away by the adjudicator after the first morning.
"It's a welcome development that improvements are being made, and that interpreters are being sent for training, but one would hope that that could be taken for granted." His assertion hits at the ignorance which assumes that interpreters need no qualification other than to be bilingual, a pronouncement that is backed up by Mr Justice Brook, who comments on "a lack of understanding of the role of the interpreter".
For those involved in the legal and interpreting professions, it is agreed that court interpreters must tread a fine balance. They should not interfere with the relationship between the barrister and the client by having untranslated discussions during a court session - even though these, as Mr Husain and Mr Seddon testify, still occur regularly. They should not have been involved in the case at any other stage both for reasons of bias and accuracy; cases such as the divorce of the Berber- speaking woman who was forced to use her estranged brother-in-law as an interpreter are now rare, but they still happen.
They must, however, be responsive enough to the body language and culture of an individual to reflect these in an intelligent translation that will accurately convey the client's intentions. "When I originally started as a court interpreter," says Claire Khatan, "anyone who could speak the relevant languages was eligible. Literacy was not demanded, and there were waiters working as interpreters, prostitutes even. Luckily the situation has improved greatly now, for unless you are professional, and aware of both cultures as well as the language, how are you equipped to deal with clients such as the Moroccan woman who did not want me, as a woman, to interpret for her in a child abuse case because it involved dirty language?"
Leanne Hedden is faced with a truly Sisyphean task. Through her work with the Institute of Linguists she is devising increasingly sophisticated methods of testing interpreters, but resources only allow one day of training, and not always with a trainer who speaks the appropriate language. Although she only received 26 complaints last year, which represented 0.19 per cent of all London hearings, she is aware that the very ignorance that allowed interpreting mistakes to happen could also allow them to slip by unnoticed. She is optimistic, however, that such problems can be tackled, while realising that with each new influx of interpreters new obstacles will have to be overcome. "A political explosion in any part of the world at any time will necessitate more interpreters," she says. "Because of this, I don't think I will ever be finished."
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies