Multilingual Justice: Laws in Translation

Multilingual Justice: Laws in Translation

TransLingua, Things are getting quieter at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY). The court, which was established in 1993 to deal with war crimes in the Balkans in the 1990s, has not indicted anyone since 2004. It is closing down its case docket. Its highest-profile indictee, Slobodan Milosevic, died while awaiting trial in 2006. Just three cases out of 161 are up for a trial now. The ICTY was the first international criminal court since the Nuremberg and Tokyo tribunals in the 1940s, and it is now beginning to assess its legacy.

Translating between languages is a hurdle for all of the international courts: the pace of the courtroom can creep, even with simultaneous interpreting. The ICTY is faster than, say, its younger and bigger successor, the International Criminal Court (whose language changes with each case). This is partly because it focuses on one linguistic region. Its purview is mostly limited to three languages--the two working languages of the United Nations, English and French, and what the court terms "BCS": Bosnian/Croatian/Serbian. (For crimes committed in Kosovo and Macedonia, the court temporarily introduced Albanian and Macedonian, but English, French, and BCS form its permanent core.)

The politics of BCS is complex. Some people separate the group into Serbo-Croatian and Bosnian; others distinguish all three. Serbs use the Cyrllic alphabet; Croats and Bosnians the Roman alphabet. There are several major dialects, but these do not line up neatly along ethno-nationalist lines. The Croatian dialects are quite distinct from one another. In any case, the various dialects are all mutually intelligible, the main reason why linguists traditionally considered them a single language. The break-up of Yugoslavia has naturally led to the increased tendency for nationalists to insist that they are distinct. The court brings them all together in official documentation under the label BCS. However they are counted, however, BCS covers essentially all lawyers, judges, defendants and witnesses.

As a result, the ICTY is able to deliver high-quality, quick translations, so fast that translated courtroom exchanges proceed almost as fast as monolingual dialogue. It is a bit like watching a dubbed movie in real life, but at least it is smooth. Some hearings at the International Criminal Court (ICC) are choppier; a dubbed movie whose audio is half a minute out of sync, if you will. BCS typically follows a subject-verb-object structure, making it easier to translate into English (though unlike English it is highly inflected). At the Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL), also in The Hague, Arabic interpreters work more slowly. Hearings are harder to follow.

Humming busily in the background is an electronic management system, E-court, which was introduced in 2006. Some of E-court's most significant changes involved language in the court. A live transcript (translated into English and French) of the proceedings can be flashed on one of the many computer screens in front of everyone in the courtroom. Parties can challenge the translation immediately, which could be crucial for a case. The translations of testimony and proceedings not in French or English must be kept in those two languages, so accuracy is paramount. E-court also allows witnesses to remain abroad and send their testimony via a video link, with simultaneous translation happening remotely. (This technology is used in the ICC, too.)

Despite BCS's copious use of diacritical marks, the ICTY does not have to deal with a totally different script, as in the ICC or the STL, both of which must work partly in Arabic now. (The ICTY must use Cyrillic to process Serbian documents, but it delivers BCS in Roman. There are brief exceptions: during the Macedonian cases, Cyrillic was used.) At the STL, Arabic proves daunting for Western lawyers tasked with leafing through thousands of pages of handwritten Arabic-language evidence. Doing language tech right isn't easy.

The ICTY's legal legacy will be debated, of course. But as the first court of its kind in 50 years, it seems at least to have dealt well with language, one of the international lawyers' biggest sources of the difficulty.

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