Oscar Pistorius: South African interpreters slip up again

Mar 4, 2014

Dubious translations in Pretoria court compared with Nelson Mandela memorial service fiasco

SOUTH AFRICAN interpreters at the Oscar Pistorius trial have been criticised again, just months after the sign language fiasco at Nelson Mandela's memorial service.

It began with a 90-minute delay to the start of the trial yesterday, after the court interpreter employed to translate witness testimonies from Afrikaans to English never appeared.

Some claim she turned up to the wrong court. Others say she took one look at the mass of photographers and journalists outside the courtroom and quit the case in an "emotional" state.

Her replacement was subsequently criticised for "ropey" translations, with the witness, Michelle Burger, repeatedly correcting her English. As the defence questioned why Burger had described the evening of the shooting as "confusing", she explained that the translator was interpreting what she was saying but the "words are not exactly the same".

The interpreter later excused herself from the room after a coughing fit and Burger gave up speaking in her mother tongue to give the rest of her testimony in English.

"Did another South African event get lost in translation?" asks the Wall Street Journal, comparing the trial to the memorial service for Mandela in Johannesburg last year, when the South African government hired a self-confessed schizophrenic sign language interpreter. He stood feet away from global leaders, signing about "rocking horses" and "prawns" while he was supposed to be translating eulogies.

Meanwhile, the mother of yesterday's court interpreter claims she had raised concerns about being inexperienced but the justice department did not give her a choice. Speaking to a local radio station, Jacaranda FM, the mother insisted: "My daughter can speak English, but the pressure was too much."

The justice department will not comment on proceedings and says it is for the presiding officer Judge Thokozile Masipa to deal with any concerns.

Today, a new interpreter appeared at court, but lawyers have already stepped in to question her accuracy after she translated "noises" as "gunshots" and British correspondents are complaining that she is "harder to understand than the last one".

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The irony is that as stories like this one become increasingly common, there's an increasing number of "language agencies" inviting "bilinguals" from all corners of the web to make easy money "translating" (they don't even know the difference between translation and interpreting).