Translation Issues at the ICTR
The official languages of the ICTR are English and French. The vast majority of the 1,500 witnesses who have testified before the tribunal, however, speak only Kinyarawanda, the African-Bantu language that is the most widely-spoken language in
The most important problem is that many Kinyarawanda concepts do not translate easily or precisely into English and French. According to Mathias Ruzindana – a Rwandan language expert who testified as an expert in the ICTR’s seminal Akayesu case – Kinyarwanda expressions involving temporal concepts are particularly ill-suited for use in a legal context, because they tend to be far more general than their “equivalents” in English and French:
“Most Rwandans do not own watches, so they usually measure time by the movement of the sun or their routine activities to express time (e.g. grazing cattle)”, he said.
“Expressions like umuseke (dawn), igitondo (morning), umugoroba (evening), etc, exist but they are not precise and do not tally with the precision needed in judicial matters”, explained the Rwandan expert.
He went on to say that Rwandans usually shade these expressions by adding words such as “very early, at about, etc” without giving exact details.
“They cannot for example distinguish between and , yet an hour or half-an-hour would be enough to establish an alibi”, Ruzindana pointed out adding that it was not uncommon to hear a witness say that “a short moment” passed between two events without even being able to estimate the time.
This kind of exchange is very common and might go on for minutes without the lawyer getting a precise answer. The defence usually ends up getting angry and abandons the line of questioning saying that the witness had refused to answer. Yet in reality one man's ignorance leads to another person's lack of understanding.
The generality of Kinyarwanda temporal concepts, in turn, affects the precision of spatial concepts:
The problem of space usually poses the same problems as those of time. For the uneducated witnesses, estimation will be approximate. It would be difficult for example, for a witness to estimate in court the distance between his house and the local administrator's office.
“The lawyer will be guided by the time it takes someone to cover the distance on foot. Unfortunately, estimating time when one does not and has never owned a watch is not an easy thing”, Ruzindana underscored.
Fabien Segatwa, a Burundian lawyer made the same remarks. The translations by most Rwandans of notions of time and space “are only rough estimates.”
It’s easy to see how such translations problems could negatively affect a trial, where accuracy is at a premium. Dr. Ruzindana’s discussion of an alibi is a perfect example: as O.J. has taught us, 15 minutes can be the difference between a conviction and an acquittal. Moreover, judges and juries alike tend to judge the credibility of a witness by examining the internal structural consistency of a witness’s testimony – a far more difficult task when relationships of time and space are expressed generally.
Because of these (and other) translation problems, the fairness of an ICTR trial will often hinge on the quality of interpreters employed by the tribunal. So it's not surprising that defendants have often complained that a witness’s testimony had been imprecisely translated – damningly so. In Akayesu, for example, the defendant complained that the interpreters had been translating different Kinyarwanda expressions relating to sexual relations simply as “rape.”
The terms gusambanya, kurungora, kuryamana and gufata ku ngufu were used interchangeably by witnesses and translated by the interpreters as “rape”. The Chamber has consulted its official trial interpreters to gain a precise understanding of these words and how they have been interpreted. The word gusambanya means “to bring (a person) to commit adultery or fornication”. The word kurungora means “to have sexual intercourse with a woman”. This term is used regardless of whether the woman is married or not, and regardless of whether she gives consent or not. The word kuryamana means “to share a bed” or “to have sexual intercourse”, depending on the context. It seems similar to the colloquial usage in English and in French of the term “to sleep with”. The term gufata ku ngufu means “to take (anything) by force” and also “to rape”. The context in which these terms are used is critical to an understanding of their meaning and their translation… The Chamber notes that the accused objected on one occasion to the translation of the words stated by Witness JJ (“Batangira kujya babafata ku ngufu babakoresha ibyo bashaka”) as “They began to rape them.” It was clarified that the witness said “they had their way with them.” The Chamber notes that in this instance the term used, babafata ku ngufu, is the term which of the four terms identified in the paragraph above is the term most closely connected to the concept of force. Having reviewed in detail with the official trial interpreters the references to “rape” in the transcript, the Chamber is satisfied that the Kinyarwanda expressions have been accurately translated.
In this situation, the tribunal was most likely correct. Translation problems, however, continue to haunt the ICTR – and, if anything, will be even more acute for the ICC, which has judges that speak many different languages and genuinely global jurisdiction.