Transpreters’ Translations of Complainants’ Narratives as Evidence: Questions of linguistic justice and access to justice

Welcome to the LNUC Concurrences Seminar Series in Colonial and Postcolonial Studies!

Prof. Monwabisi K. Ralarala, Faculty of Arts and Humanities, University of the Western Cape

Transpreters’ Translations of Complainants’ Narratives as Evidence: Questions of linguistic justice and access to justice

Law and language are inherently related, and as such the efficient functioning of the law has a direct bearing on the appropriate use of language. Any encounter with an officer of the law at a local police station in South Africa is a classic example of a language event that connects language, law and crime. This language event forms a fundamental part of the administration of criminal justice. Sworn statements, taken from members of the public, initiate the court process, and their role culminates in court, as evidence for proceedings. The taking of a statement is thus a critical aspect of the law. This is especially true in multilingual contexts, and not only for the complainant and the perpetrator, but also for law enforcement personnel or police officers – hereafter referred to as transpreters –who might find it harder or close to impossible to gather evidence as a result of language barriers. Existing data relating to oral narratives in isiXhosa and translated versions presented in English show differences and inconsistencies between the two sets of texts. Such statements are supposed to be a true reflection of the complainant’s or suspect’s own words. However, more often than not, they tend to be the police officers’ written versions of what was obtained during the pre-statement taking session. The significance of the translation of a sworn statement cannot be underestimated as it carries with it far-reaching consequences and serious legal implications when the emerging criminal matters are brought before the courts. This paper examines the oral narratives of complainants, which are framed in a form of dialogue between the transpreters and the complainants. The ‘retelling and rewriting’ of such narratives into sworn statements by transpreters, as a form of translation, is primarily taken into account. Scrutinising pre-statement taking sessions and translated English versions of sworn statements, the paper argues that such sworn statements constitute a misrepresentation of the complainants’ own words. As a result, the complainants’ actual evidence is manipulated, so that it fails to fully surface in court – as an essential part of court proceedings – in its original form. The effect of these practices, it is further argued, has serious implications for the notion of linguistic justice and access to justice in South Africa.

The seminar will be held in English.

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Linnaeus University Centre for Concurrences in Colonial and Postcolonial Studies