Lost in Translation: International Criminal Tribunals and the Legal Implications of Interpreted Tes

When courtroom interpreters translate a witness’s testimony, errors are not just possible, they are inherent to the process.  Moreover, the occurrence of such errors is not merely a technical problem; errors can infringe on the rights of defendants or even lead to verdicts based on faulty findings of fact.  International criminal proceedings, which are necessarily multilinguistic, are both particularly susceptible to interpretation errors and sensitive to questions of procedural fairness.

This Article surveys the history and mechanics of courtroom interpretation, explains the inherent indeterminacy of translated language, and describes the other sources of inaccuracy in interpreted testimony.  It then assesses the impact that errors in interpretation may have on fact finding by international criminal tribunals and on the rights of international criminal defendants. The Article concludes by suggesting some low-cost and easy-to-institute measures that will reduce the likelihood that a judgment will turn on an inaccurate interpretation.  Improving the quality of translation will buttress the rightness of the international criminal tribunals’ judgments and the fairness of their procedures.

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