Tuesday, 29 July 2014

The perils of polyglot proceedings

[Fourteen years ago the Lockerbie trial at Camp Zeist was adjourned for a three-week summer recess. To mark the occasion I produced for The Lockerbie Trial website a light-hearted piece entitled The perils of polyglot proceedings. Here is what it said:]

Tony Gauci, the shopkeeper from whose establishment in Malta the clothes which surrounded the bomb that destroyed Pan Am 103 were allegedly bought, gave his evidence in the Maltese language.  A simultaneous translation of his evidence was provided for the benefit of others in the courtroom.  On a number of occasions Mr Gauci was gently reminded by the presiding judge, Lord Sutherland, not to intersperse his evidence with sentences or phrases in English since that simply confused the interpreter whose job it was to translate his evidence into English.

There are those, consequently, who might find it mildly ironical that the English-speaking lawyers participating in the proceedings, including notably Lord Sutherland himself, should find it necessary liberally to spatter their contributions with phrases in a language other than English.  The language in question is, of course, Latin.  If it is difficult for interpreters to cope with a mixture of Maltese and English, is the same not likely to be true, mutatis mutandis, of English and Latin?

Scottish lawyers of my generation had to be able to demonstrate competence in the Latin tongue before they were allowed to study law at University.  Some of us have never outgrown the temptation to demonstrate our prowess: if you've got it, flaunt it!  Some there are who would say that we do it ad nauseam, if not quite ad infinitum.

One wonders, however, how the interpreters who have to translate the proceedings into Arabic for the benefit of the accused and other Arabic speakers, cope with all this rampant Latinity.  In the Arabic translation, do they leave the relevant phrases in Latin, or do they attempt to provide an Arabic equivalent?  For the latter, of course, it would be necessary that they should be familiar with the meaning of the Latin expression in question. One wonders if, when the interpreters were being selected, it was appreciated that a necessary qualification for the job was not merely fluency in English and Arabic but also familiarity with legal Latin.

If the interpreters are experiencing some difficulty in this regard, however, help is at hand.  That magnificent and indispensable work The Laws of Scotland: Stair Memorial Encyclopaedia (of which I had the honour to be General Editor) is accompanied by a glossary of Scottish legal terms and Latin maxims.  This can be obtained separately (ISBN 0 406 02057 4) from the main 25-volume work.  In it can be found explanations of such expressions used over the past few days as ad longum and quantum valeat.  Perhaps the Court authorities should consider supplying copies to the interpreters (whom I assume to be engaged under a contract locatio operis faciendi under which imperitia culpae enumeratur).  This suggestion to the Court authorities is made pro bono publico, and if they have already done so should, of course, be treated as pro non scripto.

[A much more important article entitled Legal interpreting and translation: a commentary was contributed by Dr Elinor Kelly to the website earlier the same month.]

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