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Testimony lost in translation

Washington Post
by Peter Finn
October 15, 2008

Lawyers, linguists say fairness undermined by interpreters' errors at Guantanamo hearings

WASHINGTON–Something was being lost in translation. Mustafa Ahmed al-Hawsawi, a Saudi national accused of war crimes and murder for his alleged role in the Sept. 11 attacks, was speaking in Arabic.

Marine Col. Ralph Kohlmann, a military judge at Guantanamo Bay, was listening to a simultaneous interpretation in English.

At a recent pretrial hearing, al-Hawsawi, according to his military lawyer, wanted to discuss the potential responsibilities of his attorneys and the implications of representing himself before the military commission. Those in the courtroom, however, often heard head-scratching sentences such as: "In the beginning of the timing of the laws, I said there is no difficulties base."

A linguist working with al-Hawsawi's team later estimated half of what the defendant said was rendered incorrectly by court interpreters and that al-Hawsawi didn't understand at least 25 per cent of what was said in English.

As five key defendants charged in the 9/11 attacks – including self-described mastermind Khalid Sheik Mohammed – move toward a trial by jury, defence lawyers and human rights advocates charge that the fairness of the most significant proceeding at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, is routinely undermined by incompetent interpretation.

"Regular omissions, or mistranslations of key words or phrases often led to disjointed, incomprehensible or misleading translations into both English and Arabic," al-Hawsawi's attorneys wrote in a draft document supporting a motion they filed asking to halt the case until qualified interpreters are hired. The lawyers asked the court to order the government to produce an Arabic transcript of each hearing – a motion military prosecutors are resisting.

The Pentagon rejected charges that interpreters at Guantanamo Bay are not qualified, but defence department officials said they were instituting new controls to address attorneys' concerns. Officials said only native speakers or native-level speakers are hired and they are equal to interpreters used in federal court. The interpreters are subject to in-house testing by the Pentagon's contractor, based on state department standards, as well as testing by an outside firm, officials said.

"We work hard to provide the most qualified translators to do an important mission for our nation," Joseph DellaVedova of the Office of Military Commissions said in an email.

"Nevertheless, because of concerns expressed by counsel – particularly regarding their ability to speak at normal pacing – OMC is instituting an additional quality control system which will enable us to pre-screen potential interpreters to assess their skill level."

Defence lawyers and court observers said the Guantanamo interpreters do not approach the standards for interpretation in federal courts or in forums such as the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia in The Hague. "There is no way someone who doesn't understand what's going on in court can get a fair trial," said Maj. Jon Jackson, military counsel to al-Hawsawi. "This is being done on the cheap."

In fact, the Guantanamo interpreters are well paid, with some earning close to $150,000 annually plus benefits if they have the right security clearance to work at the prison, according to one job offer seen by The Washington Post.

Identities of Guantanamo interpreters are classified, and defence lawyers have been unable to secure their resumés to examine their professional backgrounds.

Jackson said defence lawyers have learned informally that one interpreter was a former schoolteacher with no prior experience in simultaneous court translation. Another interpreter assigned to the defence team of alleged Sept. 11 conspirator Tawfiq bin Attash announced after arriving at Guantanamo that he was unqualified, said Edward MacMahon, a civilian attorney for Attash.

A judge removed an interpreter in a separate proceeding at Guantanamo when the words "Osama bin Laden's driver" were repeatedly interpreted as "Osama bin Laden's lawyer."

In the case, in which the defence was arguing to a jury that the defendant, former bin Laden driver Salim Ahmed Hamdan, was a bit player in Al Qaeda, the mistake was deemed significant enough for the judge to act.

Anthony Barkow, executive director of the Center on the Administration of Criminal Law at New York University, described the quality of interpretation at a pretrial hearing as "ridiculous."

"I've never experienced a situation where it was so obvious that no one understood what was being said," said Barkow, a former federal prosecutor, who is observing the 9/11 proceedings at Guantanamo for Human Rights First, a New York-based advocacy group.

The Administrative Office of the United States Courts asserts on its website that the "professional knowledge, skills, and abilities required of a federal court interpreter are highly complex."

For languages other than Spanish, Navajo and Haitian-Creole, for which there are certification programs, federal courts prefer "professionally qualified interpreters," a standing that requires demonstrated experience as an interpreter or employment history with a U.S. agency, the United Nations or a similar organization that requires taking an interpreter examination.

Nerma Jelacic, a spokesperson for The Hague tribunal, said in an email that requirements for interpreters at that court include "split-second accuracy, clear and timely delivery, ability to perform under continuous stress and to assimilate an exceedingly broad range of subjects. Interpreters are expected not only to convey the message but to communicate it as well; therefore, they have to ... sound natural and convincing in the target language."

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