Swedish justice: A matter of interpretation

As a growing array of languages jostle for position in the towns and suburbs of Sweden, Faisal Enayat Khan examines some linguistic shortcomings in the country's legal system.

In a multicultural society such as Sweden’s, the role of interpreters is vital for the smooth functioning of the justice system.

But despite the fact that the agency responsible for issuing licences to interpreters has received just one formal complaint, there is plenty of evidence to suggest that linguistic mix-ups have in many cases denied non-Swedish speakers of a fair trial.

Alla N Lindqvist, an authorized interpreter and former lecturer at Stockholm University, tells The Local that serious translation errors are commonplace in Swedish courtrooms.

Though proficient in five languages, Lindqvist stresses that she will only translate into and from the languages she masters perfectly.

“This is no joke. We are talking about people’s lives and their destiny here,” she says.

But not all interpreters are as cautious with the lives of others.

Take the case of Aaliyah (not her real name), who claims to have been the victim of repeated mental and physical abuse at the hands of her partner.

The Local was in attendance at Solna District Court when Aaliyah explained her situation to the court in Arabic.

“He made me abort several pregnancies. He beat me, and he also threatened to expose a nude picture he had secretly taken of me during our four-year relationship,” she said.

The judge however heard only a fragment of Aaliyah’s story as the interpreter condensed her account into a mere three words: “He abused me.”

When the defence attorney asked the victim why she had not come forward during all the years the defendant was abusing her, she said that it would have raised too many questions within her community.

“Everybody would have asked me about the nature of my relationship with him and I did not have any answer,” she said.

“In my culture it is not socially accepted to have a lover. Even my own family, my own sisters would have cast me out of their social lives,” she said as she broke down in tears.

Again, however, the court heard only part of Aaliyah’s story as the interpreter neglected to mention the cultural stigma attached to her romantic involvement.

Christina Voigt, the prosecutor in the case, is less than surprised when told that the interpreter shortened the victim’s statement. “It happens,” she tells The Local.

“Sometimes, for example, we are very surprised when a long statement is translated as a simple yes or no,” she adds.

Such inconsistencies can result in major discrepancies between the police files on which prosecutors build their cases and the statements made in court.

“Different interpreters translate differently and the real words get lost on the way,” says Voigt.

Maria Andersson, a spokesperson for the Swedish Migration Board, says all official bodies aspire only to hire authorized interpreters, but for some languages there are either too few to go round or none at all. Out of a total of 1,646 active interpreters, only 935 have received official authorization.

The fact that there are too few authorized interpreters to meet demand could go some way towards explaining why Kammarkollegiet, the agency that issues interpreters licences, has received so few complaints.

“We only file complaints against authorized interpreters,” agency official Leena Carlstedt explains.

“Another reason could be that it never comes to anyone’s attention that the interpreter has made a mistake.”

The list of people who have suffered at the hands of interpreter who don’t take their jobs seriously is never-ending. Almost everybody who has ever used their services has a story to tell.

An Afghan reporter who recently applied for asylum in Sweden said he was threatened by radical Islamists in Afghanistan for writing opinion columns about Pedram, a controversial communist politician.

“The interpreter hired through the Migration Board translated Pedram, which is a last name in Afghanistan, to Pedaram which means ‘my father’ in Iran,” he tells The Local.

Consequently, according to the Afghan reporter, his asylum application was rejected by the Migration Board. In its decision the board stated that there were discrepancies in statements made by the reporter in the course of the asylum procedure.

“Just because of a simple mistake I have to wait at least another six months,” he says with a long sigh.

In one way, the Afghan asylum seeker can count himself lucky that he was not exposed to a more sinister fate. In 2003, freelance journalist Nuri Kino exposed an Iraqi espionage cell that had spied on people fleeing Saddam Hussein’s regime. One of the spies had worked as an interpreter.

Joakim Von Braun, a former advisor to the Swedish Security Service (Säpo), believes there are still espionage cells working in sensitive government offices and as interpreters who are actively spying on defectors and asylum seekers.

“Asylum seekers have been subjected to asylum espionage several times,” he tells The Local.

“There has been asylum espionage in the Chinese, Iranian and Iraqi communities.”

While secret agents posing as interpreters may represent an extreme example, prosecutor Annika Turndal admits she is concerned about the role played by the values of each individual interpreter.

”It is very hard to say whether court sessions are translated in a neutral manner,” she says.

”We can never be sure that what is said in court is not being contaminated by the translator’s own ideas,” she tells The Local.

As for minimizing the problem, Leena Carlstedt from the licensing agency highlights the importance of official authorization. But not everyone is prepared to be put through their paces by taking the notoriously difficult licence exam.

The International War Crimes Tribunal in The Hague has come up with one potential solution.

“For every trial there is more than one interpreter. It really works: if one misses something the other one picks it up and there is no chance of deliberate mistranslation,” says a court clerk at the tribunal.

But while everyone in the Swedish justice system is aware of the importance of interpreters, nobody has yet proved equal to the task of developing an effective solution.