One Tuesday morning in early September, I arrived at the Criminal Court in Ratchada in the hope that I could interview my fellow Chinese court interpreter who was scheduled to perform her duties at 9.30am on the 9th floor. However, the heavy traffic killed my appointment with her so I decided to head to a courtroom on the 8th floor where I have to do my duty instead.
The case I was assigned to do was a case in which a Singaporean was accused of forging documents and exploiting the forged documents in the kingdom of Thailand. Among interpreters, our observation was that most Singaporean defendants were involved in the crime of forging documents. Not surprisingly, they won’t confess but instead, claim at the court of the first instance that what they did is legal in their country. But today, a Singaporean defendant who forged too many official documents confused early morning, which means the case will wrap up early as well.
I met a senior interpreter who would like not be named and has been working in various courts for more than 10 years. He was a Law School graduate of an open university in Thailand. Prior to becoming a court interpreter, he worked for an import-export company. I have been told by the senior interpreter that being a court interpreter requires more than just language skills.
Be a good court interpreter
“You must have knowledge of the criminal court proceedings and criminal laws. Language skills are what you have to have in the first place, even before you were selected to join the court interpreter training,” said the senior interpreter.
Every court interpreter must undergo training to become a court interpreter as the court won’t assign any jobs to untrained interpreters or outsource court interpreting.
The senior interpreter said, “And because you have already been trained, you will know how to compose and conduct yourself appropriately and professionally. In courts overseas, interpreters are not be allowed to have a chat with the accused or defendants, but here you need to do it in an appropriate manner. Not too little, not too much. And the most important thing: you must not give legal advice to the accused. Don’t tell them what their jails terms are going to be and don’t tell them what the punishments they are going to receive. These will be told by the judges. Your job is to just do the interpretation.”
The senior interpreter could also speak two other functional languages – Chinese and Japanese – apart from English and Thai. I was asking him for some tips to master 3 to 4 languages at a time. He had no comments but said, “Until you can hear and understand clearly what the speakers, whom you do not intend to listen to, are saying that means your foreign language skill is functional enough to work in court.”
Knows more than just languages
Later that day I met Dasiri, one of the senior sign-language interpreters, at the teleconference room used for tele-interpretation to other courts nationwide for cases that no foreign language interpreters are available. We decided to come down to have lunch at a local restaurant near the suspect identification room.
Dasiri said it can be scary to new interpreters to work in real situations, adding that what the training tell everyone is just trying to not scare people.
“Interpersonal relationship with everyone in the system is important. You just cannot come and act proud, and the end of the day you have to leave because nobody wants to work with you,” said Dasiri.
Life of real court interpreter
The life of a serious and professional court interpreter can be lonely as you have to come to court, do your job, get the money and leave the court without making friends with everyone. Distance between the court interpreters, lawyers, attorneys, judges, and court personnel have to be clear.
“If you get too close to the defendants, it does not look good to everyone’s eyes. They will say you are not neutral. You cannot get close to the judges, because the judges should not become acquainted with you. You can mingle with other interpreters but that’s it; everyone leaves when it has to be,” said Dasiri.
While the older generation of court interpreters still keep their interpreting tasks short, which looks not worth the pay from the court, the new generation of court interpreters learns the drawback. Senior interpreters do the translation only of the content about punishments; for instance, what the jail terms are going to be and the fines the accused have to pay, while the new generation of interpreters conduct simultaneous interpretation during the sentence delivery, consecutive interpretation while sitting with the accused and waiting to sign documents, and sight translation when the documents are shown to the accused of their signature.
Court interpretation in Thailand has no official system; everything that is run is led by the court proceedings and how judges are familiar with. New court interpreters have to learn and adapt. In fact, everyone in the system is trying to help each other to make things easier, proper and professional.
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Wanitcha Sumanat (วณิชชา สุมานัส) is currently a court interpreter, mediator, and digital transformation expert. She is also a managing editor for SuperCryptoNews, a Singapore-based cryptocurrency/blockchain-focused online media as well as health-focused CheckSukkaphap and Global update online media, The Informers.
Office of International Affairs. (2019). Stand-by Court Interpreters. Accessed: 7 September 2019.
Office of International Affairs. (2019). Questions and Answers about Stand-by Court Interpreters. Accessed: 7 September 2019.