Translation services at international tribunals

What happens if social pressures conflict with professional ethics?

Analysis by Rebekka Ehret, published in "TRIAL, Die Zeitschrift der Schweizerischen Gesellschaft für Völkerstrafrecht", Dezember 2009


Krio is found as a native language with ethnic reference mainly in the capital Freetown and in the Western Area as a whole. It is also used as lingua franca throughout the country where Mende and Themne also serve as regional linguae francae, although concentrated in the South and in the North respectively. However, Krio is also used as a first language without ethnic reference in most urban areas in Sierra Leone. It has become the dominant language of the young urban population and is often used as one of their two first languages. The language preference of young Sierra Leoneans is very important, since more than half of the population is under 19 years of age.

During the war the importance and relevance of Krio grew enormously especially with regards to its use opposite and in competition with English. In the early 90ies not only the upcoming rebel group Revolutionary United Front (RUF) under the leadership of Foday Sankoh, but also the Sierra Leonean Army decided to increase their armed forces by enlisting mainly young, unemployed people, in some cases even children. Young people, neglected by the state, often without education and thus without employment and perspective also moved to the diamond mining areas to earn a living. Their common means of communication became Krio, which led them to neglect their ethnic languages. Further, the new leaders acknowledged that they had to speak Krio in order to be understood, not only by their direct subordinates, but by the citizens in general. Therefore, unofficially, but powerfully, Krio started to re- place English in certain official, mainly political, domains where oral communication prevailed.

Languages at the Special Court for Sierra Leone

The SCSL’s official language is English, which means that the language spoken during hearings is English and that all written re- cords are in English. However, Sierra Leone is a multi-lingual country with 24 languages. English is obviously the most valuable one, because anyone trying to understand what has been recorded in the SCSL court records as part of Sierra Leone s history must be literate in English. However, there are no fully reliable figures, but it may be assumed that two thirds of the population cannot read and write English (or any other language).

Even though there has been a strong and outspoken determination by the SCSL to render all public documents accessible to the Sierra Leonean (and international) community and to keep all the proceedings public, the language barrier is so high that in fact a large portion of the population remains excluded. This exclusion stands in sharp contrast to one important goal of international justice which – among other legal and ethical motives – legitimizes the establishment of international criminal courts, namely the development of an understanding of the principles of impartiality, independence and equality before the law.

However, it is not only the access to first hand written information that is restricted, the same goes for oral statements: all the accused persons as well as all witnesses are entitled to speak in the language of their choice and to have everything interpreted into the language of their choice. Yet again and very unfortunately, the Sierra Leonean audience in the public gallery of the SCSL is excluded from the court’s interpretation of the hearings which is reserved to the people inside the court room. In order to compensate for this negligence the court’s Public Affairs Office has produced regular radio broadcasts containing portions of Krio interpretations of the testimonies and video recordings with voiceovers in Krio and in three of the most widely spoken languages, shown the provinces by the SCSL Outreach Section.

As usual in the common law tradition the witnesses’ oral testimony is at the centre stage of the process. Defence and prosecution teams prepare their witnesses for the examination in chief and the subsequent cross-examination before the judges in numerous inter- views to extract the evidence they need in order to build their case. The way the witness’ story is told depends on a number of factors, most of which are case-related, but some of which are linguistic, social and/or cultural. For convenience reasons Sierra Leonean investigators, police officers, and prosecution as well as defence lawyers tended to use Krio and Mende as their means of communication with (potential) witnesses.

This fact bears important consequences. One, due to the high social status of these court officials, (potential) witnesses tend to accept to answer in Krio as long as they feel they have some command of it. Once they are in court, however, they realize their key role and when they are explicitly asked to choose and to use their preferred language and which they would consider their first choice language, some witnesses tend to choose another idiom than the one they had used so far, especially those who had never felt very comfortable with their first choice.

In the case of the trial against commanders of the Civil Defence Forces (CDF) matters were even more complicated, since everything was being translated into Mende for two of the CDF accused. An estimated 75% of the witnesses in the CDF case chose to speak Mende. During the investigation phase the Prosecutor used Sierra Leone an investigators who spoke Mende and who would then translate the statements. None of the prosecuting lawyers spoke Mende, however, with the exception of the international ones, most of the defence lawyers did.

Further, the use of mixed personnel may also create a situation where on the one side international and – depending on their language skills – Sierra Leonean investigators relied on English-speaking witnesses as field interpreters. If none of the SCSL personnel was fluent in a requested language, an educated person was usually assigned by the village chief to translate. The court officials had neither time nor the expertise to test the person’s qualifications, linguistic or in terms of codes of conduct and ethics regarding interpretation tasks.

Once the hearings took place the official Court interpreters stepped in. They are not formally trained but have undergone in-house training. This overall setting provides a fertile ground for inaccuracies which might stem either from earlier interpretation mistakes made during the investigation and interview phase which then obviously gives way to a differing statement in the courtroom, or from actual distortions by the non-professional court interpreters.

Formal competences of interpreters

Sierra Leone being one of the poorest countries in the world does not have the resources to run formal trainings for translators and interpreters and professionals are thus scarce. Further, the fact that almost the entire population had been involved in the war poses a particular challenge to the organization of an international tribunal. Yet, only Sierra Leoneans master the languages needed to run the court services. Unlike other multilingual organizations that are only working with official languages and with interpreters holding a diploma from an internationally recognized school of interpretation, the SCSL could not recruit such staff and hence decided to select the most suitable applicants and get the training support from the ICTR Language Section for a four week introductory interpretation training to the selected persons. Later the SCSL recruited a Head of Language Unit who provided permanent training for and monitoring of the interpreters. Most of them were Sierra Leoneans with a good command of English, recruited from either the university (mostly linguists), the teachers college or directly from secondary schools. Since Sierra Leone has a rather long history of attempts to standardize its most widely used languages, there has also been an evolvement of language expert personnel for the four national languages, Krio, Limba, Mende and Themne.

One challenge was generating new words for the English legal terminology in the local languages – an important exercise since most of the legal terms had no equivalent in the local languages. If there was no word of which the semantic field could reasonably be expanded to incorporate the legal meaning and if taking the English word as a loan word did not make much sense since it would not be understood the legal term was simply explained. Example: “quantitative rule” (literal translation): rule which has to do with evidence and which requires more evidence before they close the case.

Ethical rules and linguistic principles

Finding evidence and doing justice are processes that are performed through language. Domestic criminal courts have evolved in a predominantly monolinguistic environment – an evolution challenged today by increased migration and the internationalization of justice. In multilingual cases the interpreters are often the only people who have a ful0 understanding of not only all languages used, but also context, linguistic resources, social status and power relations. But as shown above the hybrid nature of the SCSL creates an unfavourable environment for the coherence and consistency of (some) evidence because not enough attention is been paid to the specific multilingual nature of Sierra Leone and hence to the needs for this court, the social value attached to the literacy/illiteracy component and to the individual languages, and the quality of interpretation. Interpreters are actors in the courtroom who have enormous power, but the code of ethics tells them how to deal with this power. One of the most important challenges is to fully and deeply understand the role of an interpreter, i.e. being a linguistically knowledgeable person who provides that knowledge as a paid service to the court. The sort of life he or she leads and what opinion he or she has is of no interest as long as it does not interfere with the job. In a post-conflict country, however, it is very difficult for interpreters to not have an opinion about the case for which they work. It is difficult not to look at the content of the sentences in terms of their meaning for the case, but solely in terms of language and meaning for themselves because as a private person one has an opinion. Professionalism requests impartiality and obliges interpreters to leave their personal opinion outside the court, expressing it only as a private person. And yet, because of the risk of vicarious traumatisation there must be time outside of the court room to talk about one’s feelings in a secure space.

There are other ethical rules that are more subtle to apply correctly and these are connected to socio-linguistic principles. The sociological and cultural frame in which language is used comes into play here. Sierra Leonean society is a highly stratified and authoritarian one. The stratifying factors that are relevant for our argument are age, gen- der, educational background and the urban- rural divide. In other contexts social status can also be related to political, religious, or military positions or to standings within a male or female “secret society” (traditional closed circles of people with specific functions in the respective ethnic group).

Rooted in the pre-independence situation, an extreme version of neo-patrimonialism has developed and has entangled Sierra Leonean society. Extreme social and political polarization of post-colonial Sierra Leone was rooted in the colonial era. The settlement of repatriated slaves, who later became know as Creoles and are now called Krio, were accorded privileges - such as privileged access to education - and engaged in the discrimination and exploitation of the indigenous population in the provinces. There, a chiefdom system was introduced by the British to administer the collection of taxes. Still nowadays elder, male chiefs in the villages systematically make youths dependent often by accusing them of crimes and hence imposing heavy fines that can only be paid through labour. Hence a traditional way of respecting the elder generation has turned into a system of manipulation of the young through the older by exercising power over them at all costs.


The context of an international criminal court in an African country lends itself to the assumption that ethnography of speaking analysis would be particularly valuable because there might be certain discourse conventions that may influence the outcome of a trial when people from one cultural background are tried in another cultural context. The classic ethnographies of speaking have shown that language analysis in the context of its related culture help understand the meaning of utterances in context. In the case of the SCSL this approach would not address the underlying stratifying force of social status applied within the UN “culture” and the Sierra Leonean “culture”. At worst the view on one entity, or unity or “culture” compared to the other could reify the already existing social inequality components. Also, in my experience law belongs to a category of know- ledge that is nourished by the ambiguity of natural language. If linguistic behavior is explained in culturalising terms, it defeats the strategic or tactic purpose of ambiguity. I therefore suggest examining in detail where power relations become apparent linguistically and where that could have an influence on the modus of how the trial is performed. I strongly hold that the internationally induced dominance and high status of English (and English speakers) combined with the Sierra Leonean system of patrimonialism with its own mechanisms of domination and control creates an ethically problematic environment if not a dilemma in the fact and truth finding process unless it is given special attention. The special attention that socio-linguistic matters deserve has so far not been granted in the establishments of inter- national war tribunals.

Dr. Rebekka Ehret, University of Applied Studies Lucerne, Switzerland ( is a social anthropologist and linguist. She was the Chief of the Language Unit at the SCSL until 2006 and has since worked as a consultant with other international war tribunals.