Accuracy is central to the work of all interpreters

No justice without interpreters

5 March 2015 By Kate Mackintosh

As the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia works towards the end of its case list, deputy registrar Kate Mackintosh reflects on the mechanics that made the pioneering institution possible.
Although we rarely see them behind the shaded glass of their courtroom booths, international justice could not exist without interpreters. Pioneered at the Nuremberg trials, simultaneous interpretation in the courtroom has come a long way since 1945.

Interpreters at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) have overcome a diverse set of difficulties since the tribunal’s inception, starting with challenges to the very existence of the language predominantly spoken in the former Yugoslavia: Serbo-Croat. Sensitivities surrounding Serbo-Croat stemmed from the break-up of the former Yugoslavia after which the separate nation states went on to identify Serbian, Bosnian and Croatian as different languages. This led to certain defendants and witnesses claiming that they could not understand the language spoken by an interpreter from a different ethnic group. Advice was sought from prominent linguists as to whether this was a plausible argument, which came back in the negative. The ICTY then invented a new name for this shared language: Bosnian/Croatian/Serbian or B/C/S, which has become a common and accepted term at the tribunal.

Accuracy is central to the work of all interpreters. In a criminal trial it is essential. The interpreters’ words become evidence, as they are recorded in transcripts that become the official trial record and are quoted in judgments. At the ICTY, the prosecution and defence are constantly scrutinising the transcript in court, ready to challenge any aspect of the interpretation that they consider incorrect, or prejudicial to their cause.

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