What went wrong with Oscar Pistorius's interpreter?


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Some background to court interpreting in South Africa, given by SATI (the South African Translators' Institute) in response to the Oscar Pistorius interpreting fiasco on the first day of his court case:

Court interpreters in civil cases are arranged and paid for by the parties themselves. In criminal cases, the interpreters are provided by the Department of Justice (DoJ). The DoJ does not have full-time dedicated Afrikaans-English interpreters in its service. What it does have are interpreters who inter alia interpret between Afrikaans and English, in addition to other languages. So the DoJ sometimes makes use of people not employed by it as interpreters.

In the Pistorius case, the first interpreter was apparently not in the employ of the DoJ, because she walked out when she saw the massive media presence. This is unlikely to have happened if she had been a full-time interpreter of the DoJ. The DoJ then had one of its employees who works at the children's court do the interpreting, purely on the basis that "she can speak English" (to quote her mother from a Media24 news report). The fact that she is not a trained interpreter did not even seem to be considered.

Court interpreters are appointed for a probation period of twelve months with only a matric as prerequisite, mostly based on the fact that they can speak a number of SA languages (normally, the more the better). They are given some rudimentary in-service training by senior interpreters, doing actual court interpreting at the court where they are appointed. Once they have worked for a while and have proven to be able to cope with the work to some extent, they may be sent during the probation period to the Justice College in Pretoria for training. It is also possible that they would not be sent for training, but would continue to work as interpreters.

SATI was instrumental in the mid-1990s in establishing a diploma in legal interpreting that was initially offered by a number of tertiary institutions throughout SA. Upon its conversion into a BA in legal interpreting, first at the University of the Free State and later at UNISA, the other institutions stopped offering it because of a lack of interest. The BA at UNISA has been steadily steadily dwindling over the past few years but is still on their books, and it is no longer offered at the UFS. The main reason for the lack of interest was that court interpreters did not really see any change in their status or remuneration upon obtaining the qualification.

One can understand against this background why the state of court interpreting is as it currently is. Shockingly bad practices prevail where many court interpreters are at work. If there is one branch of the profession that needs regulation desperately, it is court interpreting. Hopefully the Language Practitioners' Council, once established, will be able to give urgent and serious priority to the registration and accreditation of court interpreters.

On that note, the South African Language Practitioners’ Council Bill (as amended) was passed by the National Assembly today. You can view the plenary session here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Bglqqyt85Vk (the SALPC Bill was the last item on the agenda, discussed in the last four minutes of the session).