Sunday, February 28, 2010

More on the Shafia Hearing

The other day (February 18), I made some remarks about the Farsi (aka Dari) interpreters at the preliminary hearing for a murder trial in Ontario, Canada. I want to make it clear that I wasn't being disparaging of their actual interpretations, which haven't been challenged or criticized even though they were probably being closely monitored by the interpreter hired independently by the defence. Rather I had doubts about their preparedness for the work at the outset and about their working conditions. Here's some more first-hand description of the latter from perceptive crime reporter Rob Tripp.
An elaborate audio system was installed in the courtroom to allow the simultaneous translation of the proceedings between English and Farsi… The translation was fed to everyone in the courtroom through wireless headsets.
A sound-deadening booth that was dubbed the garden shed by lawyers was erected near the prisoners box. Two court-certified translators, a man from Ottawa and another from Cornwall, drove to Kingston daily to sit inside the booth for hours, where they took turns interpreting the dialogue. An interpreter hired by the defence sat at a table behind the three defence lawyers… The proceeding wasn't without hiccups, however. Often [the judge] was required to interrupt witnesses and occasionally lawyers, urging them to slow down to allow the translators to keep pace.
Several times, the translators interrupted the proceedings after realizing that they had misinterpreted words and phrases.
"It worked better than I expected it would," said defence lawyer Peter Kemp, who represents the accused father. "The problem still is, when the witness gets asked a question, for example, in English by the Crown [i.e., the prosecution] and the translator translates that question in Farsi to the witness, there is quite often a lengthy discussion that goes on between the translator and the witness which leaves me wondering whether there is more being said by the witness that we should be hearing."
Kemp, an experienced litigator who is well known for his ability to identify and pounce on inconsistencies in testimony, said it was difficult to make notes and to focus on the behaviour of witnesses.
"You're trying to concentrate on the witness, who's off to my right and the translators are speaking and I can hear them subtly off to my left," he said. "You lose track of what's being said."
The translation booth butted up against the defence table in the relatively small courthouse…
The translation obstacles were exaggerated by the occasional appearance of witnesses who spoke in French, including the last witness who appeared yesterday, a man from Montreal.
In that case, a French translator stood next to the witness, translating back and forth between English. Those translations were then translated into Farsi.
This last is what the Professionals call relay interpreting, generally a last resort because it adds to the time lag between what the speaker says and the translation and because the chances of misinterpretation are doubled. But it's often inevitable.

In a subsequent post, I’ll get to the connection between all this and Natural Translation.

Rob Tripp. Prelim comes to an end. The Kingston Whig-Standard, February 27, 2010.

The February 18 post was headed with a photo of the County Court House at Kingston. Actually the preliminary hearing wasn't held there but in a smaller local court house in the city.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Olympics Interpreting

Watched the Vancouver Winter Olympics on TV this week. Spanish TV uses native Spanish commentators, so no interpreting except during an occasional snatch of interview translated by the commentators themselves. But it brought back recollections of my own three-week stint at the Montreal Olympics in 1976. My most vivid memory is of the evening at the Montreal Forum when little Nadia Comaneci scored her perfect 10, the first Olympics gymnast ever to do so. I wasn’t there as an athlete (ha! ha!) but as a Conference Interpreter - the high point of my professional interpreting career. I have other stories to tell of the Montreal Olympics, but they concern Professional Interpreters and so this blog isn’t the place for them.

Instead, I want to draw attention to the army of other interpreters at the Games, the Liaison Interpreters. Unlike us conference interpreters huddled away in our booths, they wear smart uniforms and are to be seen walking around everywhere at all such international events. Some are temporarily professionals, some are volunteers. But they aren’t engaged as interpreters and they aren’t recognized as such. They’re called hostesses and hosts. Of course they have a lot of other duties besides interpreting, but they usually have to be bilingual, and it’s not sufficiently appreciated that translating and interpreting are often anciliary parts of other jobs (bilingual secretary, for example). For the Beijing Olympics, it was announced that
Members of international delegations in Beijing for the Olympic Games will be served in 55 different languages, according to the Beijing Organizing Committee for the Games of the XXIX Olympiad.
In Montreal the hostesses and hosts were provided with pocket glossaries, one for each major sport, compiled by the Quebec Government's Office de la Langue Française.

An event like the Olympics gives spin-off, and so the interpreting jobs may be outside the Olympics organization itself. Here’s part of a job ad by a private Vancouver firm:
To ensure the success of the entire Olympic Games experience, CoSport establishes a Hospitality Desk at all of our hotels staffed with knowledgeable CoSport employees to assist with any questions or requests and to ensure the comfort of our guests. If a package includes hosting services, guests will be escorted throughout the day by a bilingual host/hostess who can describe the history behind the many historical sites of Vancouver and provide updates on the latest Games information.

So with all those Liaison Interpreters around, why are Conference Interpreters needed? For one thing for the press conferences that follow each event. But few people realize how much conference work goes on behind the scenes before the Games even open. It’s an opportunity for the world governing bodies of each sport to get together. I said I knew about soccer, which in those days few Canadians played, so I was assigned to a week of meetings of FIFA, as well as to a tense meeting of the International Olympics Committee over Taiwan‘s participation as “China“.

To be continued.

For Nadia Comaneci, see Wikipedia.

Cosport. Welcome to the web site of the official hospitality services provider for the 2010 Winter Olympic Games.

55 languages spoken at Beijing Olympics. All About China, February 7, 2008.

Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. The Taiwan controversy. June 16, 1976.

Friday, February 19, 2010


Yesterday’s post nearly didn’t make it to the blog. My computer was invaded by malware. A rogue antivirus program calling itself Antivirus Soft that displays an unstoppable stream of false reports of threats and bogus pop-ups to make you think your computer is infested with viruses. Then it offers to remove the infections if you buy the full version of the program. The reports and pop-ups are plausible - they name real files - but they are all false and I knew it within moments. Still, it took me the rest of the day to get rid of Antivirus Soft and repair the mischief it had done.

How did I first know it was a scam? Because, as with the many email scams that clutter up our Spam folders, the messages were in ‘funny English’. Here’s an example:
Windows reports that computer is infected… Click here for the scan your computer.
Definitely not Microsoft style.

Antivirus Soft obviously uses less-than-expert localizers. But in the case of malware, the poor English is for once a good thing.

Remove Antivirus Soft. Description and removal instructions.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

The Shafia Hearing (continued)

This is a continuation of the preceding post. Please read the other one first.
The photo shows the Frontenac County Court House in Kingston.

The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which forms part of the Constitution, states,
A party or witness in any proceedings who does not understand or speak the language in which the proceedings are conducted, or who is deaf, has the right to the assistance of an interpreter.
But it says nothing about the quality of the interpretation. That matter has been left to the courts. The landmark ruling was handed down in 1994, when the Supreme Court, in a 72-page (!) judgement, ruled in essence that
The constitutionally guaranteed standard of interpretation is not one of perfection... However, the translation must be continuous, precise, competent and immediate... An accused who does not understand and/or speak the language of the proceedings - be it English or French - has the right at every point in the proceedings in which the case is being advanced to receive interpretation which meets this basic standard.
So the accused’s conviction in that case was quashed on grounds of inadequate interpretation and a new trial ordered. And as the accused was a Vietnamese speaker, it became clear that the “basic standard” applied no matter what language was involved.

Because of this and other cases, the justice administrations have become sensitive to the danger. When the languages are only English and French, there is minimal risk because there are almost always judges or lawyers present who can, and indeed do, monitor. Several of my court interpreter contacts have gone through the experience of being challenged by one of the lawyers who are adequately bilingual (or think they are), and the judge having to decide who’s right. But when it’s a foreign language, it’s a very different situation. Who will be the judge?

Most of the media report the Shafia family’s language as being Farsi. This is misleading, because the language of the accused is indeed a kind of Farsi, but what’s widely spoken in Afghanistan is a dialect of Farsi called Dari (the dialect spoken by the Bookseller of Kabul and mentioned in my October 11 post). The statement by one reporter that “Farsi is a dialect of Persian” is also misleading. Farsi is the modern form of the Persian language spoken throughout Iran. We shall see a possible consequence of the difference in a moment.

For some of the documents in the case, we already know from the media that the police are taking no chances
Translations of interviews and police wiretaps and surveillance tapes have proven difficult and time-consuming. All translations must be peer-reviewed by two additional translators to ensure accuracy.
Time-consuming but a wise precaution. Perhaps the transcripts of the interpretation in court will be double-checked the same way.

I’m certainly for the courts being obliged to use tested and qualified interpreters, and all the more so in a murder trial. On the other hand, I have some sympathy for the justice officials when they have to find qualified interpreters for a distant language like Dari. It’s clear from the reports that the ones they found for the preliminary hearing were not yet Expert Interpreters. Here are my reasons for saying so:

1. When the hearing started, the interpreters didn’t interpret. When this was brought to the judge’s attention, they said they thought they only had to translate what the accused and the witnesses said, not the legal arguments submitted by the lawyers. The judge had to instruct them to translate everything. It’s natural to think that there‘s no point in translating something that would go over the accused’s head even in his or her own language, but Canadian procedure is clear about this and an experienced court interpreter would know it. (The question of not interpreting legal argumentation came up at a sensational trial I was at in Germany many years ago, so it‘s a widespread issue.)

2. At an earlier hearing,
Shafia [the father] appeared to become impatient and apparently swore in Farsi. The interpreter reacted with a smile but didn't translate what was said for Chiang [the presiding magistrate].
Again I sympathize, but the interpreter ought to have translated it, or at least conveyed Shafia’s anger.

3. At four o’clock on the first day of the preliminary hearing, the interpreters told the judge that they couldn’t go on because they were having trouble understanding the dialect. I suspect that this was because they had been hired as Farsi interpreters and were faced with Dari. If so, they should have known they would have trouble.

4. Simultaneous interpretation is being used. It's understandable that the court wants to save time by using simultaneous; one witness yesterday spent five hours on the stand and being interpreted. But if the interpreters aren't experienced in simultaneous, they will have additional difficulty. Yesterday the judge had to intervene repeatedly to ask the witness to slow down for the interpreters.

Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, section 14.

Supreme Court of Canada. Quoc Dung Tran v. Her Majesty The Queen
(R. v. Tran, [1994] 2 S.C.R. 951).

Rob Tripp. Spectators denied canal killing evidence. CanCrime blog, February 6, 2010.

Paul Schliesmann. Sides dig in for the long haul. The Whig-Standard, Kingston (“Canada’s oldest newspaper“), circa October 10, 2009. Cited by Rob Tripp.

Rob Tripp. Translators play key role in preliminary hearing. Whig Standard, February 13, 2010.

Rob Tripp. Battery woes plague hearing. Whig-Standard, February 18, 2010.

Brian Harris. Observations on a cause célèbre: court interpreting at the Lischke trial. In L'Interprétation auprès des tribunaux, ed. Roda P. Roberts, Ottawa, Éditions de l’Université d’Ottawa, 1981, pp. 189-201. Out of print but some libraries have it. I don’t have a copy in Valencia.

Photo: Photo Travel Pages.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Murder and NT

A terrible murder trial is just getting underway in Canada. It’s particularly shocking because the victims were three teenage girls and an older woman and the murder was allegedly an honour killing. They were all members of a family that's originally from Afghanistan and came to Canada about three years ago. They were found drowned in a car that had been driven at night into a canal near the town of Kingston, Ontario, which is where the trial will therefore take place. The photo shows flowers placed at the site. Kingston is a quiet town on the St. Lawrence river, home to Queen’s University and the Royal Military College, but also to seven (!) penitentiaries.

The accused are the father of the girls, Mohammed Shafia, aged 56, his wife, aged 39, and their eldest son, aged 18. They’re charged with murder and with conspiracy to murder.

The incident occurred in June of last year. What's taking place now is not yet the full trial but the preliminary hearing. At a preliminary hearing, a judge has to determine whether the prosecution has enough evidence to justify holding the trial; and even if the Kingston judge determines that it should go ahead, it’s not expected to take place before the summer. The prosecution and police say things are going slowly because of the complexity of the case. Part of the complexity is undoubtedly language.

The son speaks fluent English, but the two parents are “not proficient” in either English or French, though they have been living in Montreal. Some people have been asking how the latter could have lived for two years in Montreal without learning one of its languages, and especially the father, who owned the car; but I think they fail to understand that someone may be able to get along in a language for everyday purposes yet still not be capable of following court proceedings in it. In everyday transactions, they had NT help from a neighbour:
A day-care worker at the school that some of the Shafia children attended, [Joyce] Gilbert helped the family overcome language barriers. The family spoke mainly Farsi when they moved into the Montreal home. The children studied in French and Gilbert said they “learned very fast.”
“All the papers they got in French, so I was translating for them, even with the landlord,” said Gilbert.
NT also intervened at other points in what transpired as the police concluded it had not been an accident, which is what the father claims. The older woman in the car was Rona Shafia, the first wife of Muhammed Shafia; whereas the woman co-accused is his second wife.
Rona's younger sister, Homa Kahoush, interviewed through an interpreter by telephone from her home in Sweden, said she was shocked by what had happened. Speaking in Persian translated by her son Nawed Amir Mohammed, Kahoush said her sister had been married to Shafia in Kabul in 1980.
The first contact between Mohammed Shafia and the police was when he went himself to the Kingston police to report that the car and his daughters were missing:
When the father reported the disappearance, he was accompanied by Yahiya [his second wife] and their oldest son, Hamed, who acted mostly as an interpreter.
Thus we see two little-mentioned applications of Language Brokering: communication with law enforcement agents (in Kingston) and with the press (in Sweden), both of them before Professional Interpreters came on the scene. The former application is especially delicate, because of the principle that “anything you say will be taken down and may be used in evidence against you.”

To be continued.

Sue Yanagisawa. Canal death parents barred from kids. The Ottawa Sun, August 19, 2009.

Paul Schliesmann. Sister draws disturbing picture of canal deaths. CN News, August 1, 2009.

Tofyi. Parents, son charged with murder in Islamic honour killing case near Kingston. Toronto the Violent, July 23, 2009. (Actually it remains to be proved that it was an honour killing, despite the allegations.)

Photo: Sunny Freeman, The Canadian Press

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Sign Language Natural Translation

There are still a lot of misconceptions about sign language for the hard of hearing ('the deaf' for short). Many people, perhaps most, think it’s made up of the finger spelling' for the letters of the alphabet that’s often distributed on little cards. The fact is, it’s much more sophisticated and efficient than that. Some people think it’s not really language in its own right but just the recoding of spoken and written language, something like Braille. Linguists now generally disagree with the latter view. Yet other people think there’s just one universal sign language, whereas there are actually dozens of them, often several in the same country, as well as 'dialects' such as Baby Sign Language. And at the other extreme, there are those who think that all deaf people can understand sign language, which is very far from being true.

There was a discussion last autumn on Jamie Berke’s Deafness Blog about whether a deaf child can be bilingual in sign languages at the age of three. Jamie wasn’t sure, but the consensus was, not surprisingly, “If kids can learn two or more verbal languages, why not signed languages?”´

In the days when deaf people didn’t move outside their own communities very much, the need and opportunities for sign language bilingualism were few, but that has been changing. Now signers of different languages quite often come together, at conferences for instance. Just as Esperanto has been proposed as a solution to the conflicts of spoken-language multilingualism, so an auxiliary international sign language has arisen called International Sign or Gestuno, but it’s not yet widely known enough.

In Canada there are two sign languages: (a) a dialect of American Sign Language (ASL) used in English Canada, and (b) Quebec Sign Language (LSQ) used in French Canada. They aren’t mutually intelligible. One discussant on the Deafness Blog wrote,
There are people who code switch depending on who they are with, and I have seen multilingual people alternate Quebec French sign (LSQ) and ASL with ease.
Yes, so have I, though it‘s not common. But “people” here refers, I presume, to adults. How about young children?

The same discussant wrote,
Deaf children have been observed to jabber away among schoolmates in a child slang sign language, and use more formal sign in the classroom.
That covers what the linguists call diglossia - speaking in different registers of the same language. But how about true bilingualism between different languages?

A striking empirical answer to the question is provided by the case of Jeremy (see photo), a Montreal child about whom there was a programme on Canadian TV in 2001. Both he and his parents were deaf. His mother was communicating with him in LSQ, his father in ASL. He had therefore learned both languages simultaneously as first languages.

Nobody in the blog discussion raised the question of translation. Perhaps because there are two kinds, or 'modes', of sign language interpreting. The first mode is not between two sign languages but between a sign language and a voice language. It’s extremely common and is done even by children in families where there are deaf and hearing members - a kind of language brokering - so its possibility is beyond question. Most of the Expert and Professional sign language interpreters are drawn from this pool of early bilinguals. The kind of bilingualism it assumes is called bimodal. The other kind, between two sign languages, is much rarer because there are fewer opportunities and motivations for it. The Natural Translation Hypothesis, which applies to sign language as much as to voice language, predicts that it exists in children like Jeremy. But so far I haven’t seen the evidence.

Jamie Berke, Can a deaf child learn multiple sign languages? Deafness Blog, 2009,

There’s a Wikipedia article on "International Sign".

Langues des signes. Anne Fleischman, reporter; Hélène Naud, producer. Radio-Canada, 2001.

Babies and Sign Language website.

Photo: Radio-Canada

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Death of a Language

The media have been reporting a sad cultural and linguistic event: the death of Boa Sr. (the Sr. stands for Senior). See photo. She was the last fluent native speaker of Bo, a tribal language of the Andaman Islands off the east coast of India, and a link to a culture some 65,000 years old, one of the world’s oldest. During the last years of her life, she was unable to find anybody to converse with in her native tongue, but she also spoke Hindi and another local language.

Boa Sr. leaves behind a legacy of songs and stories and her culturally revealing account of the 2004 tsunami:
…We were all there when the earthquake came. The eldest told us the Earth would part, don't run away or move…
Some of it is available in English on the Internet, thanks to the fieldwork of devoted anthropologists and linguists led by Prof. Anvita Abbi of the Jawaharlal National University in New Delhi, and to their translating. It’s a reminder of how much we owe to anthropologists and anthropological linguists for their contributions to translation, which thereby provides us with access to an important part of human heritage. They are professionals in their own field, not Professional Translators, but they have to be Experts who understand the problems of translation - something that was emphasized by one of the most famous of them, Bronislaw Malinowski.

Malinowski tried to find a bridge between a free, reader-oriented translation that would be intelligible but would have to jettison valuable information about the culture of the source language; and on the other hand a more literal translation that would preserve all the traces of the original culture but be unintelligible to target-language readers (which reminds me of Wittgenstein‘s famous saying that even if a lion could speak, we wouldn‘t understand what it was saying.)

Boa Sr. Long narrative on tsunami. Recorded, transcribed and freely translated by Alok K. Das.

Jonathan Watts. Ancient tribal language becomes extinct as last speaker dies. Guardian Unlimited, February 4, 2010.

Vanishing Voices of the Great Andamese (VOGA) website,

Bronislaw Malinowski. The problem of meaning in primitive languages. In C. K. Ogden and I. A. Richards, The Meaning of Meaning, 1923. Reprinted in Janet Maybin, Language and Literacy in Social Practice, which is available free online at Google Books.

There’s a Wikipedia article and there are many websites on “endangered languages”.

Photo: Alok Das

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Translating At Three Levels

For the past week, I’ve been translating. At three different levels.

1. Translating documents for submission to the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Ontario by a Spanish doctor wanting to go for specialized training in Canada. I don’t do much Professional Translation these days, but I do come out of retirement for cases like this one because the translations have to be certified by an Expert Translator accredited in Canada. (It sounds crazy, but certified translations by translators accredited officially in Spain aren’t accepted. Tit for tat, the Spanish authorities don‘t accept my translations.)

2. The catalogue for an exhibition of musical instruments (see image). I think I did it satisfactorily, but it could have been done more efficiently by a Native Translator with a background in music or better still musicology. As a text, it was very simple; but I had to spend a lot of time researching technical terms that a bilingual musician would probably have had at his or her fingertips. (Notice that I introduce the concept of efficient translation to take into account the time needed. A translation may be very good by the norms of quality, but not time or cost effective.)

3. For some German tourists and the driver on a bus in Valencia. The tourists could speak neither Spanish nor English. My spoken German is rudimentary. If they’d had a German/Spanish bilingual child with them to act as their Language Broker, I’m sure that child would have done as well as me.

A full week.

Image: Centre d'Artesania de la Comunitat Valenciana

Religions in Translation

In my Feast of St. Jerome post last September 30, I complained that religious translation wasn’t given the important place it deserved in contemporary translation studies.

Now, from that wellspring of TS literature, St. Jerome Publishing, comes a call for contributions to a special issue of their journal The Translator that will be devoted to Religions in Translation: Issues of Censorship and Identity. The call rightly begins,
Translation has been central to the way religions have travelled across languages and cultures. It has introduced religions to new cultures, led to conversions and to the establishment of communities of new religious adherents.
Certainly censorship is a topic of clear historical relevance here in Spain, where the infamous Inquisition banned all Spanish translations of the Bible for over 200 years lest they stray from the official Roman Catholic interpretation enshrined in the Latin Vulgate. More widely, Christian and other sects and churches everywhere have the translations that they use - over 2,000 years of them - as part of their identity.

The special issue will be guest edited by Hephzibah Israel of the UK Open University and the University of Delhi. But we’ll have to wait until well into 2012 to read it.

Dr. Hephzibah Israel,