False interpreting - a legal controversy

A recent amendment to the Czech Criminal Law has coined a new legal term - false interpreting - which according to some experts is unique in international law. In this week's edition of Talking Point Pavla Horakova gets both sides of the story.

The amendment - part of a package of changes to the criminal law - was passed by both houses of the Czech parliament and signed by the President despite the protests of Czech professional unions of interpreters and translators who say that the very concept of false interpreting is fundamentally flawed. Jiri Eichler is a council member of the Czech Union of Interpreters and Translators.

"The first thing we did was we called our colleagues in professional associations abroad and of course we informed the International Federation of Translators which is acknowledged by UNESCO as an A class organisation. All of these confirmed it's a unique, unparalleled concept and they gave us information about similar regulations which cover court interpreting in their respective countries."

Jiri Eichler points out that it was difficult to find the right equivalent for the Czech expression, which is new even in the Czech language. Vladimir Kral is the head of the criminal legislation section of the Justice Ministry and he was one of the submitters of the amendment. His opinion on the alleged "uniqueness" of false interpreting is different.

"I don't think there is anything unique in the amendment. Nothing new is being introduced here; it is only a modification of the facts of the crime. After all, the criminal codes in a number of European countries recognise false interpreting and stipulate the length of punishment for it. For example in France, interpreters who distort interpreting can be given a sentence of five years in prison or a fine of half a million francs. As far as the substance of the crime or the sanctions are concerned, there is nothing exceptional in the Czech amendment."

I asked Vladimir Kral about the differences between the current legislation and the amended section which is causing such uproar among interpreters in the Czech Republic and abroad.

"The main difference is that so far, an interpreter who knowingly interpreted in an incorrect, grossly distorted or incomplete manner faced punishment only when he or she did so before a court, a prosecutor's office or an investigating or police body. Under the amendment such an interpreter faces punishment if he or she commits perjury by false interpreting in proceedings before any state administrative body. That means for example in the case of asylum proceedings or civil or commercial proceedings."

Those whom the amendment concerns the most - Czech interpreters - object that the drafting team did not consult their professional associations before putting the bill forward. A number of Czech organisations and institutions dealing with translation and interpreting tried to halt the legislative process a few months ago. And they're still not giving in now, several weeks before the law comes into force. Jiri Eichler is coordinating the protest actions.

"All of the professional institutions involved in interpreting are acting together. One of the options is to file a complaint to the Czech ombudsman and the other one is to file a constitutional complaint. Most likely they will do both because the legal analysis we have now shows it is also legally defected."

The president of the International Federation of Translators Adolfo Gentile shares this view. Mr Gentile sent a letter to President Vaclav Havel in March urging him to prevent the amendment from being adopted. One of the federation's objections is that the status of interpreters in legal proceedings in the Czech Republic is not clear. Jiri Eichler adds that there are no criteria as to who can become a court interpreter. The law does not provide for any generally acknowledged examinations although some courts arrange for oral examinations by already assigned court interpreters or experts. So it is not entirely uncommon that people who know the required language are virtually picked off the street and appointed by the court to provide basic interpreting. Jiri Eichler again.

"For example in Prague it's very difficult to be assigned for languages like German or English but there are too many court interpreters already assigned. But on the other hand it's very easy to become court interpreter in languages like Chinese, Japanese, Vietnamese etc. because it's just needed and in most cases there is nobody who could examine these people."

If that is the case is there anybody who can tell that an interpreting was wrong, incomplete or distorted? A written translation can be sent to experts for independent evaluation. But, as Jiri Eichler points out, court transcripts are never the exact rendering of the interpreter's words. I asked Vladimir Kral who is to say someone has committed false interpreting?

"The amendment envisages broader use of recordings of court proceedings, which shall be obligatory as of 2004. Authentic records will be available as evidence. Then it is necessary to prove that incorrect, grossly distorted or incomplete interpreting was not caused by negligence but the intention of the interpreter."

Critics of the amendment have other objections too.

"There are legal defects and the amendment is redundant, it's absolutely useless. Some experts on human rights say it's against human rights and there is an assumption of racism, because the purpose of this amendment was to facilitate the solution of particular court cases with the so-called small languages, such as Vietnamese."

Vladimir Kral from the drafting team disagrees.

"I hesitate to say that the section does not concern interpreters from European languages in the same way as it relates to interpreters from so-called exotic languages."

Jiri Eichler is afraid the amendment might put interpreters off working in the legal sphere.

"The problem is that this will discourage many professional interpreters to help state administration bodies, to help courts. These people who so far were willing to help, they are now discouraged. So who is going to interpret for the Czech authorities?"

Vladimir Kral thinks the whole affair is a storm in a teacup and says there is no reason for alarm.

"As we've said before what is now called false interpreting has been known to Czech law for decades but this amendment has now related it to all legal proceedings. I can imagine that interpreters object to the relatively low fees for court interpreting but I don't know why they should be afraid of prosecution. I am not aware of any cases in the past when the interpreter refused to interpret before a criminal court for fear of being accused of false interpreting. I can't imagine why they should be afraid now."

Whether the amendment proves harmful or not, there is one aspect of the matter worth a thought - the need to educate new legal interpreters and make sure they have the necessary qualification. Jiri Eichler again.

"There is no programme coordinated by the state or Ministry of Justice. The state, particularly the Ministry of Justice is not interested. These people unfortunately do not understand what is necessary for ensuring qualification of court interpreters especially in small languages. They think they will solve it by absurd sanctions. They are not interested in what really can ensure the quality."

There is no doubt more and more reliable legal interpreters working with more and more languages are going to be required in the Czech Republic, as a future EU member and a country with many immigrants. Observers suggest it's about time the country set up a programme joining university training institutes, representatives of legal services and professional interpreters in order to produce new generations of qualified legal interpreters who will have a clearly defined status. And resolving this issue could help to prove that the Czech Republic is a country which respects the rule of law.