Misinterpreting justice in Venda

Abiy Alemu AshenafiAuthor: Abiy Alemu Ashenafi
Student (LLM in Human Rights and Democratisation in Africa), Centre for Human Rights, Faculty of Law, University of Pretoria

As the High Court in Johannesburg grapples with the question of whether some schools in Gauteng must teach in two languages, in Venda it is the courts themselves which have a language problem.

Too often, individuals who appear before the courts in Venda are denied full access to justice because of the language they speak – or don’t speak. Cities like Thohoyandou and others across Venda attract people from across this diverse country, and not all are fluent in Tsivenda or Xitsonga. While the police in Venda are most often able to articulate the rights of the arrested person in that person’s vernacular, the next step of the judicial process – the courts – might as well be in Greek.

In actuality, the courts in Venda and throughout South Africa use English (and sometimes Afrikaans). All other languages must be translated, and the interpreters employed by the courts must not only translate the words, but also the ideas and concepts behind them, serving as something of a ‘culture broker’.

Needless to say, the meanings of words and phrases are fluid between languages – sometimes within languages. What if the true meaning of words or legal concepts is lost in translation?

It can happen. In Venda, qualified interpreters are often unavailable, meaning the court sometimes utilises interpreters who are not professionals, and who are not made to take an oath. Researchers have recently identified several cases where inadequate translations between English and other South African languages have proved to be an impediment to – if not a miscarriage of – justice. Would you want your loved one’s life or liberty to be at the mercy of a bad translation?

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