The poor quality of simultaneous interpretation during Khmer Rouge tribunal proceedings is a pressing issue that could eventually affect the legality of the court’s decisions, observers and parties to the tribunal said Thursday.
Kaing Guek Eav, better known as Duch, pursued his testimony on the establishment of the S-21 detention center Thursday morning, mostly verifying facts already known to the public and historians. The accused spoke in short and simple sentences, a request of the court so that the tribunal’s interpreters would be able to follow his words.
“Because the translation is in a delay process, first from Khmer into English, and then from English into French, then there might be some losses,” Presiding Judge Nil Nonn told the court. “In some cases 50 percent might be lost, in other circumstances more percentage might be lost, and it might interfere with the rendering of fair justice,” he said.
The court adjourned at midday so the judges would be free to deliberate on several requests of the parties, the interpretation request chief among them. The judges were also scheduled to deliberate this morning so a decision on interpretation could be rendered before the start of the next phase of testimony, Nil Nonn said.
The Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia employ 40 people in the Interpreter and Translation Pool, instead of the 64 it is supposed to have, ECCC spokeswoman Helen Jarvis said.
“It’s been a problem, we know, for a long time of finding qualified people. We’ve had many advertisements, and it’s a reasonably well-paid position, but I am afraid the level is very high to do simultaneous translation in a court setting,” she said. The French relay translation was set up because the ECCC could not find competent Khmer-French interpreters, she added.
According to job postings on the ECCC’s website, interpreters at the court must have an advanced university degree and a minimum of three years’ experience.
Roth Hok, deputy director of the Foreign Language Institute at the Royal University of Phnom Penh, dismissed the argument that there is a lack of competent interpreters in Cambodia, and said the court was simply not attracting the right candidates.
“I think there are a host of reasons why interpreters do not want to work for the tribunal, one of which is allegations of corruption maybe, maybe because they feel they don’t know enough about the Khmer Rouge, maybe because of safety concerns,” he said, also suggesting the court might not provide enough time for training in legal and Khmer Rouge-specific issues.
Ms Jarvis said that “considerable” time was spent on training, “whenever possible given the tremendous ongoing demands for interpretation and translation” imposed on a department only two-thirds staffed.
Complaints about interpretation have surfaced at every international tribunal, all of which have been at least bilingual, but issues at the ECCC seem the most acute, legal observers said.
“The problems at the ECCC seemed to me evidently more grave than what’s happened in front of other tribunals because we have real problems of comprehension on the substance,” said Thierry Cruvellier, a journalist who has observed many international courts of justice. In Rwanda and Sierra Leone, interpretation was at times difficult, but it never affected the overall understanding of testimonies and has not resulted in legal decisions’ being overturned.
Things could be different in Cambodia as international participants have had difficulties following Duch’s testimony, and international and Cambodian parties understood at least one key answer differently this week.
On Thursday morning, defense lawyer Francois Roux insisted that Duch be allowed to repeat his Wednesday statement about vertical and horizontal communication lines within Democratic Kampuchea’s prison apparatus. Duch explained he only had contacts with his superiors, never with other security offices. Through the English translation, however, parties had heard the very opposite the day before.
Ms Jarvis noted that because all comments are recorded in their original language and transcripts are revised and compared every day, errors are promptly caught.
If a discrepancy exists, the original language would prevail on paper, said Michelle Stag, deputy director of the Asian International Justice Initiative. But in the judges’ minds when they make their decision will be whichever version they heard during debates, she added.
“It’s clearly hinging on the accused’s rights to a fair trial. At the moment, it’s not the nuances [that are confusing]; it’s quite basic facts.” she said. “This could raise all sorts of issues on appeal if the defense finds that the translation was such an issue that it completely compromised the case.”