30 October 2007
Translation errors may see criminals escape
Translation errors may see criminals escape
SCORES of convicted foreign criminals could walk free because of the appalling quality of official translators in Scottish courts, a leading linguist has warned.
Alena Linhartova, who has interpreted in Scotland for 20 years, said people were effectively being "pulled off the street" to translate in a growing number of court cases.
This has called into question the reliability of evidence and raised serious doubts about whether foreign nationals, particularly from eastern Europe, can expect a fair trial in this country.
Ms Linhartova, from the Czech Republic, said the situation was so bad that she expects a "flood" of appeals from foreign nationals against convictions.
The Scotsman has learned that a human-trafficking trial collapsed after lawyers discovered that a woman drafted in to interpret for a key prosecution witness did not know what to do.
Miroslav Benak and Eva Benakova, a couple from Slovakia, had been accused of trafficking two vulnerable women from their home country into Glasgow's sex industry. The trial, at Edinburgh High Court, collapsed during the third week over the interpreting fiasco, at a cost of about 100,000.
The case against the couple has since been thrown out due to a lack of evidence. Details can only now be published as reporting restrictions were in place until last week.
Last month, The Scotsman revealed another High Court trial collapsed because interpreters were unable to translate instructions and evidence to three Vietnamese accused, who were charged with running a cannabis factory in the west of Scotland. The men were found guilty at a subsequent trial.
A massive influx in eastern Europeans into Scotland has left the courts facing a serious shortage in skilled interpreters, particularly in Polish, Czech and Slovak.
While the Scottish Court Service and the Crown Office always seek trained interpreters, they are frequently supplied with language students who have neither qualifications nor experience in a courtroom.
They rely on the assurances of private agencies, which have won lucrative contracts to supply interpreters to the police, courts and prosecutors.
Ms Linhartova said no thorough checks were carried out to ensure translators have either the language skills or an understanding of the legal system. This, she said, has caused a string of embarrassing and worrying incidents. They include an interpreter threatening to give a false translation to worsen the punishment for an accused.
She said: "I know many of the eastern European interpreters - Polish, Czech, Slovak, Russian - used in court and only about 30 per cent of them are qualified. Once defence lawyers know what's going on, there will be a flood of appeals. Some sheriffs will simply disregard concerns of defence lawyers who have the temerity to say the interpreting doesn't look too good.
"But native speakers are sometimes simply being pulled off the street to work for agencies and they often find themselves in court without any training. The credibility of the Scottish justice system is at stake."
Suzana Kadurova, an interpreter from Slovakia, said: "I disagree with the way the interpreting services are run in Scotland, mainly when it comes to court interpreting and I think people without relevant qualifications and professionalism should not be interpreting at all." Richard Freeman, a solicitor-advocate based in Glasgow, warned that this was a growing problem.
"It's an absolutely crucial role and the consequences can be huge if something is lost in translation," he said. "It's something that people are now becoming more aware of. It's a thriving industry, but it needs regulation."
The Crown Office and the Scottish Court Service said they always sought proof that agency-supplied interpreters had been "professionally assessed".
AN INJUSTICE IN ANY LANGUAGE
THE Scotsman has learned of some shocking examples of poor interpreting in Scotland's justice system.
Zuzana Kadurova, a Slovakian interpreter, said: "During a case at Edinburgh Sheriff Court, an accused from Poland asked me what I was doing as I was interpreting. He said that every other time he had been in court, the interpreter would simply be giving him a summary and chatting to him about life in Scotland while the case was unfolding."
On another occasion, a Polish man told her how glad he was that a Slovakian was interpreting for her.
"His previous Polish interpreters would tell him how he had brought shame on their country, and that they would interpret for him in such a way that he would get a bigger fine."
During a swoop in Glasgow, only one out of ten interpreters involved was qualified. Czech-speakers were used to interpret for Slovak Roma nationals, despite Czech being the third language of the accused. The Romas were charged with human trafficking and prostitution.
There have also been anecdotal stories of interpreters offering accused legal advice.