2022/10/26 | By Molly Quell | Photo by Aaron Burden
Known as the international city of peace and justice, The Hague is home to some of the world’s most prestigious courts. War crimes and genocide are investigated and prosecuted and major disputes between nations are adjudicated. But very often the judges, lawyers, defendants, witnesses, and victims who appear at these courts do not share a common language. Behind the scenes, a small army of interpreters make these proceedings possible.
The first thing you need to know is that interpretation and translation are not the same. “Interpretation involves the spoken word, translation involves the written word,” says translator Christina Pribićević-Zorić, who managed the interpretation and translation service at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia. “It’s a common misconception,” she says.
International courts need translators as well, and documents submitted as evidence along with legal filings must be accessible to all parties in a case. But it’s the interpreters who have the challenging job of simultaneously listening and speaking to ensure a court hearing is understandable to everyone in the room.
More than words
Written translation dates back through much of human history. The translation of the Hebrew Bible into Greek, known as the Septuagint, in the 3rd century CE is sometimes called the first major translation, but scholars have been translating stories from one language to another for longer. Buddhist monk Kumārajīva, who lived from 344 to 411 CE, was famous in his lifetime for translating Sanskrit Buddhist texts into Chinese.
The Nuremberg trials, in which Allied countries prosecuted Nazi officials for war crimes, were simultaneously interpreted into English, Russian, German, and French in one of the earliest examples of widespread interpretation in court proceedings. “Whispered interpretation” – where the interpreter speaks directly into the ear of the person listening instead of an audience – had long been used by political leaders, but Nuremberg necessitated a larger-scale approach. Some 600 headsets were used during the 10 months of hearings that saw 19 of the Nazi regime’s highest-ranking officials put on trial.
Given the sensitive nature of trials like Nuremberg, interpreters are expected to adhere to a code of ethics to ensure they do not intentionally nor inadvertently sway proceedings. At the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, translators and interpreters were required to affirm they would “convey with the greatest fidelity and accuracy, and with complete neutrality, the wording used by the persons they interpret or translate.”
According to Ahmed El Khamloussy who interprets French, English and Arabic at the International Criminal Court, there are different schools of thought as to how one faithfully interprets another’s words. Some argue an interpreter should be as calm and neutral as possible, others say that failing to convey the anger or fear someone is expressing masks the reality of what is being said. “It’s always a challenge,” he says.
The working languages of the International Criminal Court (ICC) are English and French but the Rome Statute, which created the court in 2002, requires that proceedings be available in a language the defendant “fully understands and speaks.”
As the world’s only permanent court for the prosecution of war crimes and crimes against humanity, the institution has an obligation to victims to ensure hearings are understood as well. The court’s language service has more than 50 staff members and brings on freelance interpreters as needed. The court is currently conducting investigations or holding hearings in more than 30 languages.
Life in translation
Similar work is done at the Special Tribunal for Lebanon, the Kosovo Specialist Chambers and the International Residual Mechanism for Criminal Tribunals which took over cases from both the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia and International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda when those institutions were wound down. They all call The Hague home.
The Dutch judiciary also provides simultaneous interpretation for defendants who do not speak Dutch. The Hague District Court, sometimes jokingly referred to as “the busiest ICC in The Hague” has seen dozens of cases of non-Dutch speakers as Dutch authorities make use of a legal concept called universal jurisdiction to prosecute some crimes regardless of where they occurred.
In recent years, the court has held cases with suspects from Syria, Ethiopia, Iraq, Rwanda, and Liberia. In fact, given the number of non-Dutch victims, the ongoing trial of four men charged with murder for downing Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17 has been entirely interpreted into English.
“The work can be very stressful,” says Pribićević-Zorić. Interpretation requires an incredible amount of focus. Interpreters at the International Criminal Court work for thirty-minute shifts before taking a break and always work in pairs. “So, someone can step in if needed,” she adds.
Many courts deal with harrowing and gruesome tales of war crimes and genocide, which can take a toll on those who have to listen to the details for the duration of a trial.
El Khamloussy remarks “It’s a tough but gratifying job.”
Did you know:
The International Criminal Court (ICC) is open to the public unless a judge orders a closed hearing.
If you would like to hear the interpreters speaking about their experiences, check-out the Asymmetrical Haircuts podcast.
If you want to learn about the translation of official documents which are in Dutch (birth certificate, marriage certificate, etc.) please click here.
About the author:
Molly Quell is an American journalist based in Delft. She is The Hague correspondent for Courthouse News Service and a contributing editor at Dutch News. When not working, you’ll find her enjoying a beer and hanging out with her dog. Twitter: @mollyquell