As the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia works towards the end of its case list, deputy registrar Kate Mackintosh reflects on the mechanics that made the pioneering institution possible.

Although we rarely see them behind the shaded glass of their courtroom booths, international justice could not exist without interpreters. Pioneered at the Nuremberg trials, simultaneous interpretation in the courtroom has come a long way since 1945.

Interpreters at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) have overcome a diverse set of difficulties since the tribunal’s inception, starting with challenges to the very existence of the language predominantly spoken in the former Yugoslavia: Serbo-Croat.

Sensitivities surrounding Serbo-Croat stemmed from the break-up of the former Yugoslavia after which the separate nation states went on to identify Serbian, Bosnian and Croatian as different languages. This led to certain defendants and witnesses claiming that they could not understand the language spoken by an interpreter from a different ethnic group.

Advice was sought from prominent linguists as to whether this was a plausible argument, which came back in the negative. The ICTY then invented a new name for this shared language: Bosnian/Croatian/Serbian or B/C/S, which has become a common and accepted term at the tribunal. 

Accuracy is central to the work of all interpreters. In a criminal trial it is essential. The interpreters’ words become evidence, as they are recorded in transcripts that become the official trial record and are quoted in judgments. At the ICTY, the prosecution and defence are constantly scrutinising the transcript in court, ready to challenge any aspect of the interpretation that they consider incorrect, or prejudicial to their cause. 

Adjectives must be selected with care – one of our interpreters recollects the lengthy debate in court which followed the use of a term ‘a bloody mess’ to translate a vulgar B/C/S term, and whether this carried a connotation of violence.  

Interpreters in criminal trials also face the unique challenge of conveying the demeanour of witnesses without straying into the realm of partiality. A judge listening to five different witnesses over the course of a week in court will only hear the voice of the interpreter, who must reflect a positive cooperative tone, or reluctance, anger or sadness, all of which are important for a judge in evaluating a testimony.

Accuracy in court interpretation is about more than the words. It enables judges to assess credibility.

The emotional toll on our interpreters is high. Most are from the region of the former Yugoslavia, and in the early days of the tribunal had to sit through accounts of ongoing atrocities in their home countries. Victim testimonies are particularly difficult, with trials such as that of Dragoljub Kunarac which focused on the crime of rape in Foča, hearing testimony after testimony from rape victims.

Accuracy in court interpretation is about more than the words. It enables judges to assess credibility.

These inspirational women, who had surmounted all manner of fears and obstacles to come to the ICTY and speak in public about their ordeal, were clearly under severe stress whilst giving testimony. The interpreters inevitably shared some of this stress, and some required psychological support after this experience.

Sitting at the edges of our trials, yet intricately woven into proceedings, into the multitude of voices that make up a trial, our interpreters are true professionals, without whom international justice simply could not function.

* The International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia was set up in 1993 during the conflicts in the region. It has jurisdiction over the war of 1991-5 and the later conflicts of 1998-2001 in Kosovo and Macedonia. It has indicted 161 individuals all of whom have been accounted for. Four trials are still ongoing, including those of two of the most senior figures indicted: Radovan Karadžić, former president of Republika Srpska, and Ratko Mladić, the former general of the Bosnian Serb Army.

Kate Mackintosh is deputy registrar at the ICTY

Co-author Joanna Ellis Adwan is press officer at the ICTY