Vital information lost in translation

2015-07-22 06:00
Moeti Molelekoa - Social Observer

Moeti Molelekoa - Social Observer

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IN 1996 a mine worker from Mozambique known as Samson, was charged with theft by a mining company.

This after a large number of goods belonging to the particular mining company were discovered at his home in Thabong, Welkom.

During the hearing he was asked by the presiding officer to secure an interpreter, given that he mainly spoke and understood Tshona and Portuguese. The case was postponed to enable the accused to secure an interpreter. Ultimately, a Portuguese national, also a miner, acted as interpreter in Samson’s trial.

During the trial, Samson queried the accuracy of the interpreter’s translation. Samson was then told to carry on in English because it appeared that he disguised the fact that he was well-versed in English.

The question remains, however: How many people are being deprived of a fair trial because of inaccurate interpretation by interpreters?

Samson was found guilty and fired. He was, however, given a fair trial and his right of representation was respected.

I raise the issue of accurate interpretation after deaf viewers complained bitterly over Thamsanqa ‘Bompie’ Jantjie’s sign language interpretation ability at Nelson Mandela’s memorial service at the FNB Stadium in Gauteng on 11 December 2013. Aggrieved deaf viewers said that Janjie’s interpretation proved that he was incompetent.

Be that as it may, the deaf community was deprived of an opportunity to make real sense of messages in speeches by USA President Barak Obama and South Africa’s President Jacob Zuma, among other heads of state, by a fake sign language interpreter.

Court interpreters, especially those not adequately trained, can put South Africa’s justice system in jeopardy. Some of them have in fact been accused of misrepresenting the facts. Incidents involving interpreters can lead to a miscarriage of justice because they (interpreters) create loopholes which lawyers can capitalise on. Dramatisation by interpreters with the view to make the audience laugh in court is one of the aspects I observed during a hearing in Welkom.

In 1974, four Welkom municipal workers (garbage collectors) were each sentenced to five years in prison after they were found guilty under apartheid’s Terrorism Act for engaging in industrial action. During that era, trade unions were outlawed and those organising the workers were regarded as terrorists. They were perceived to be working with underground, banned movements like the ANC, the Pan Africanist Congress (PAC), South African Communist Party (SACP) and others.

The four were asked why they had refused instruction to disperse from the illegal gathering and go back to work.

They replied that they did not comprehend the translation of the interpreter as he lacked understanding of Xhosa dialects and that his interpretation was inaccurate. In his testimony, the interpreter said the defendants should have pointed out the miscommunication at the scene.

The interpreter grew up in a township, while the accused were from the rural Eastern Cape and used a pure Xhosa dialect.

Recently, King Goodwill Zwelithini declared that he was misquoted, following allegations that he told a gathering in KwaZulu-Natal that foreigners should pack up and return to their native countries. This transpired during brutal xenophobic attacks in KwaZulu-Natal and other parts of the country which claimed scores of lives and left hundreds homeless.

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