Blogs for Culture Vultures

When convenience overtakes competence in translation

A “dialogue of the deaf”, that is the way that the Public Defender of Honchian Lin described the quality of translators provided to his client in Haifa, Israel.

During the initial questioning, trial and appeal of Lin for the brutal murder of his girlfriend, the Haifa police encountered difficulties in providing an adequate simultaneous translator for his interrogations. They initially canvassed a local Chinese stallholder; as the father of a police employee and someone working near to the station ‘Joe’ was the most convenient choice for the police. However it later emerged not only was Joe untrained for the position but was linguistically unsuitable for the role he had been given.

Lin was arrested in 2006 after a passerby discovered the dismembered body of his girlfriend Michelle Jamias in the street. Joe was brought in to act as a simultaneous translator on the first interrogation of Lin by the police. However Lin was not familiar with the Chinese dialect spoken by Joe (being from rural China where dialects vary) and spoke only a few limited sentences of Hebrew. This resulted in the translation of Lin’s statement being vague and disjointed, lacking accuracy in terms of what had been said and by whom. The evaluation of this evidence by the Supreme Court Justice, Yoram Danziger, has produced the verdict that the initial interview was both “degraded and unclear”

On this evidence the Haifa police seem to have failed Lin’s rights to be able to be treated to a fair judicial process. They failed to ascertain the suitability of Joe’s services in advance and when experiencing interview problems failed to find another translator. Although Lin confessed again in a second interview, he later was able to use the lack of fair translation as support for his claim that he had made a coerced compliant confession. This meant that Lin could claim that the pressure of being unable to communicate his story led to a confession that was obtained forcibly under duress. So not only had the suspect’s rights been violated but also the prosecution faced difficulties in convicting Lin of the crime which additional evidence (beyond his confessions) proved he had committed.

This case shows the pitfalls of inviting foreign workers into your country and then not providing for their basic needs. If a foreign worker falls sick, is accused of a crime or is called to witness then they need to be able to accurately receive and provide information. Does this case suggest that Israel, as an example, is unconcerned with such issues or is it simply the fact that funding is not available to provide for these needs? Either way countries have a responsibility to provide for those they invite in, they should not feel that the economic or other advantages of foreign workers outweighs the rights of these people to be treated as any other citizen.

Even after the Supreme Court Justice’s findings Lin was given a Mandarin translator for his appeal against his conviction, again unable to speak his rural dialect. More evidence that the service of translation and all its relevant nuances should not be overlooked, especially if you actively encourage speakers of other languages into your country.
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