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 »  Articles Overview  »  Art of Translation and Interpreting  »  Interpreting In Court

Interpreting In Court

By Carl Tengstrom | Published  04/12/2014 | Art of Translation and Interpreting | Recommendation:
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Carl Tengstrom
Finnish to Swedish translator
Fíxose membro: Sep 10, 2013.
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As I was appointed assistant judge at a court in northern Sweden, my first appointment was just to observe the procedure of the court in session. The session took place a long way from the town where we were located. The court had five session places around the North part of Sweden and this was one of them. We had to start the journey early in the morning to get to the court in time. We began our trip at 5 a ’clock in the morning. That was after a real party we had the evening before and I had only two and a half hours sleep. You can imagine that I was kind of sleepy. However, I did not mind, because the only thing I had to do when we arrived, was to learn the routine of the court session.
As the session began, a local member of the jurors was appointed to be the interpreter. The case was about a Norwegian sailor, who was the alleged father in a paternity case. He had a very bad hearing. Almost everything that was said had to be repeated. On the other side stand a little woman from the east side of Finland, near the border of Russia. She was not one of the most intelligent creatures and also for her the questions and answers had to be said twice. She had also a very strange dialect. The poor interpreter had no chance to follow what these two were humming. Ten minutes lster the presiding judge called off the session and asked me, if I could translate instead. I nodded and thought that it would be my baptism of fire. After about three hours of hard work, I could finally sit down and relax. We had managed to decide in this case and the presiding judge thought I had done a good job. Perhaps I had done well, but mainly because I was not nervous, due to the fact that I still was very sleepy.
During my two years at the court of Haparanda, I had the opportunity to work as an interpreter daily at the sessions of the court. It was a very interesting work and gave me a lot to do, because I was working as an assistant judge also. Not at the same time of course, but often in the same day. It is a known fact that you after a session as an interpreter are totally empty in your head. It takes a while until you can work at full speed with the legal matters on hand.
Most of the time I translated from Finnish to Swedish and at the same time from Swedish to Finnish. I also once translated from German to Swedish as a German sailor stood before the court. As we were in session I remember that I for a moment found something really amusing.
Then the German sailor said: “It is alright for you to smile, but think about how I have it”. He was right, I was out of line to show my feelings.
Later I made the reflection that an interpreter in reality has an enormous power in his hands. He or she understands what both parties say, but neither party has a clue of what the opponent says. The interpreter could tell anything but what was said and nobody would ever know anything about it. Of course we have sworn an oath to tell the truth and nothing but the truth, but still, you never know.
After my period at the court of Haparanda I came to Stockholm where I worked in a law firm focused on criminal law. As I knew the Finnish language I had many clients from Finland. I spoke Finnish with them and it also happened on many occasions that I got to interpret for them in court. Many times a person that was in need of interpretation had a good understanding of the source language. In this way he could think about what to answer during the time it took for the interpreter to translate. I discovered the same phenomenon by witnesses in the court who wanted an interpreter to their help. As a question was asked they already understood what was said, but during the translation they had enough time to think about a good answer.
Once there was a witness who refused to give any statement, pretending that she could not remember anything about the case. The presiding judge tried several times to remind her of her duty to tell what she knew. Unfortunately she had given a written statement earlier and that made her situation unbearable. She was taken into custody for three days and after that the session continued.
There is one special memory, it did not happen in court but at a hearing at a police station. As interpreter was a former chief of police. He had a very peculiar way of interpreting the various sentences. When the policeman who was conducting the hearing, asked a question, the old chief did not bother to translate what he said. Instead he had questions of his own. Sometimes he also took the question from the police conducting the hearing. He then waited for the answer from the suspect and thereafter shaped the answer to his own good before he gave it to the police officer. Since the police officer did not know what the suspected person answered, he took the answer coming from the interpreter for true. You certainly understand how devastating this was for the rule of law. I confronted him about his behavior and he was furious. As I told him that I was an interpreter, licensed by the court of Haparanda he got wild. When I told him that I understood Finnish and that I did not tolerate that he interpreted anything else but what was really said. After a while he had calmed down a little and we could continue. The next time I met this interpreter in a case at the police department he acted quite normal and fine without a single slip to his old habits.

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