Sunday, November 6, 2011

“Anything you say… may be used in evidence.”

Long-time Followers and other readers of this blog will remember previous posts about the interpreting at the drawn-out series of hearings in Canada for members of the Shafia family. They are Afghans, up on a charge of murder for an alleged honour killing. (I’m avoiding the presumption of guilt and motivation that most of the media make). To find the previous posts, enter shafia in the Search box on the right. Now the case has finally come to trial. On the language side, some things have improved since the early days: the courtroom installation for the interpreters has been made less flimsy and some of the press correctly identifies the defendants’ language as Dari, not Farsi.

One might think that by now there would be nothing new to report about the interpreting, but in fact several points of interest have already come up in the most recent accounts from court reporters Christie Blatchford and Rob Tripp. (Christie’s ‘human interest’ style sometimes irks me – why should she mention that “his voice was soft, and he spoke slowly for the female interpreter”? – but she does have an eye for detail.)

* During the preliminary process of selecting jurors,
“A significant number of prospective jurors were rejected because they admitted they had hearing difficulties. The judge cautioned that because of the technology and the complex interpretation process, jurors must have good hearing.”
I don’t know why it should be harder to hear an interpreter than to hear the witness directly; indeed the use of headphones for the simultaneous interpreting ought to make it easier if the equipment is up to standard. But it’s an interesting new juror requirement.

* The police interrogations of the accused were videotaped. One of the interrogations took place entirely in Farsi (Farsi and Dari are closely related) and that taping has been introduced as evidence:
“The video played in court featured English subtitles. Jurors also had a transcript.”
This is the first time I’ve heard of prior subtitling of testimony and of jurors being provided with a prior written translation. Plainly the prosecution are being innovative in their measures to avoid any evidence being contested.

* What I find most interesting, though, is what we know from the videotapes went on before the trial, in the police interrogations of the defendants. The most successful interrogations, from the viewpoint of the prosecution, were not through an interpreter but by two police officers who speak Farsi as first language. One of them was “a trained interrogator and major crime investigator.” When interviewing the sole female defendant,
“he both spoke softly to her and flat out called her a liar, invoked their common religion, praised her role as a mother, twice put a comforting hand on her shoulder.”
This could hardly have been done through an interpreter respecting the conventional norm of interpreter neutrality. It would have required the policeman and the interpreter to work together with a common purpose.

In any case, the Farsi-speaking officers only appeared on the scene some while after the investigation had started, because they had to be borrowed from another police force in a distant part of Canada. At the very start it was a local Anglophone police officer named Dempster who did the first interviews, before they had become interrogations of suspects. He immediately phoned for and obtained an interpreter. During his first interview with the head of the family, “Shafia was by turns impatient with the translator and Dempster.” This illustrates the difficulty someone may have in keeping the personality of the interpreter separate from that of the person for whom the interpreter is speaking.

Police interpreters are an essential aid and there are many of them, either regulars or ad hoc. They are involved in crime work long before the court interpreters; and probably more often, because a case may never come to trial or a witness may never be called. But inevitably they work in the shadows. For that reason they might qualify for my category of unrecognized translators. Unlike court interpreters, their work isn’t subject to the scrutiny and checks that apply in open court; although when “anything you say will be taken down and may be used in evidence,” their accuracy is just as crucial. What is taken down, after all, has long been what the interpreter says – though that may change with videotaping, subtitling and translated transcripts.

Christie Blatchford: Accused in alleged honour killing showed no sign of distress. National Post, Oct 30, 2011.

Christie Blatchford: Mother accused of killing teen daughters had Karla Homolka moment with police. National Post, November 2, 2011.

Rob Tripp. ‘I haven’t killed them,’ sobbed mother accused of murdering her three teenage daughters. National Post, November 2, 2011.

Mohammad Shafia on June 30, 2009, at the Kingston Police Sation. The interpreter is out of sight on the right. Source: full comment.national

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