With the eyes of the world focused on the Oscar Pistorius trial, another South African translator has made headline news after botching the job. Called to translate the first witness testimony from Afrikaans into English, the female translator did so poorly the witness had to constantly correct her. The witness eventually opted to give evidence in English instead of Afrikaans, her native language. In December last year, a fake interpreter at the Nelson Mandela funeral was accused of talking about “rocking horses” and “prawns” while he was supposed to be translating eulogies. He eventually claimed to be schizophrenic and was admitted to a psychiatric hospital. Today’s new botch was as much of a shock, especially since this time it happened in one of the country’s highest courts of law.
Monday morning, Oscar Pistorius, accused of the murder of his beautiful model girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp on Valentine’s Day 2013, appeared in the North Gauteng High Court in Pretoria and entered a plea of not guilty. He also entered not guilty pleas to three other charges related to firearms, though these have nothing directly to do with the Steenkamp murder, but rather, to other alleged offenses.
This time, the Oscar Pistorius trial started a lot later than planned, reportedly because the Afrikaans translator who was originally hired to do the job became so “overwhelmed” when she arrived to court that she could not cope. She left court after bursting into tears. Another South African translator was sourced, and while she did not become tearful, the quality of her translation was poor enough to cause considerable shock among journalists who immediately began tweeting how the interpreter was using “confusing” words that the first witness had not said.
After both the defense and prosecution had presented their opening arguments, the first witness, Michelle Burger, took the stand. In keeping with the ruling relating to witnesses who are not comfortable testifying live in front of television cameras, only the audio recording was broadcast. Because she is Afrikaans speaking, Burger, a university lecturer, requested a translator.
A neighbor of Oscar Pistorius, Burger said she had heard four shots and blood-curdling screams on the night Pistorius shot Reeva Steenkamp dead in his bathroom. But at the time, she thought it was somebody breaking into a neighboring property so her husband called a security company to alert them to the situation. She said she heard even more intense screams and then became “very scared.”
In her testimony, Mrs. Burger said she had come forward as a witness after discovering that she lived closer than other witnesses whose evidence had been questioned because they lived a further distance – nearly 2,000 feet – from Pistorius’s home. She said that because she “lived much closer than that,” she and her husband realized their testimony could be crucial in the Oscar Pistorius trial.
Drilled by the defense advocate Barry Roux, Burger emerged with her reputation intact and with media across the board describing her testimony as good and solid. She also emerged as an Afrikaans-speaking woman whose English skills are considerably better than the interpreter hired by the state. The showdown came when Judge Thokozile Masipa questioned whether there was some kind of “miscommunication” between Burger and the female translator. Burger said she was “fairly comfortable” speaking in English but preferred to speak in Afrikaans. Eventually, she said it would be better if she spoke in English and called on the translator to help out if she was unable to express herself properly in English.
Local news reporters wasted no time pointing out this new South African translator shock, even though it was mostly labeled a secondary news story linked to the Oscar Pistorius trial. Most of Burger’s testimony was in Afrikaans this time, but tomorrow she will be speaking in English at the trial. It is not yet known if the same female translator will be present.
Editorial by Penny Swift