There can be dire consequences from not translating legal content.
The Siemens bribery trial was characterised by many this past summer as a trial ‘lost in translation’. For those who don’t remember or know the topic, this case is about public contract No. 8002 which the German company Siemens secured and signed in 1997 with the Hellenic Telecommunications Organisation (OTE) which was then publicly owned in order to digitise its network. The investigation of the case was launched by Greek judicial authorities about a decade ago and, as a result, 64 suspects were brought to trial. Amongst them were 13 German nationals, executives of the German company, as well as a French-Swiss banker. According to the indictment, the defendants allegedly bribed Greek politicians and public officials to secure the above mentioned public contract.
On the 12th of July the three-member Court of Appeals in Athens suspended proceedings in the Siemens scandal case for an indefinite period, because the subpoena and the bill of indictment hadn’t been translated into the defendants’ native language. The Court accepted the plea filed by the non-Greek defendants and suspended proceedings until the translation could be completed, even though this suspension could lead to the crimes being prescribed under the statute of limitations. Of course, that is the only decision the Court could have reached, since the right to interpretation and translation for those who do not speak or understand the language of the proceedings is enshrined in Article 6 of the ECHR, as interpreted in the case-law of the European Court of Human Rights and is further specified by the Directive 2010/64/EU of the European Parliament and of the Council. According to the Directive the Member States should ensure that there is free and adequate linguistic assistance, allowing suspected or accused persons who do not speak or understand the language of the criminal proceedings fully to exercise their right of defence and safeguarding the fairness of the proceedings. Article 3 of the Directive also makes it quite clear that, “Safeguarding the fairness of the proceedings requires that essential documents, or at least the relevant passages of such documents, be translated for the benefit of suspected or accused persons in accordance with this Directive. Certain documents should always be considered essential for that purpose and should therefore be translated, such as any decision depriving a person of his liberty, any charge or indictment, and any judgment.”
So quite rightly not translating legal content essential for the case was characterised as an even bigger scandal than the Siemens scandal. The Translation Service of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, to which the translation of those documents was assigned, initially stated that all the documents sent to it by the Prosecution Service at the Court of Appeals were translated in time, while the Prosecution Service denied that that was so. After a number of further denials of each side’s claims by the other side, as well as disciplinary actions against State Prosecutors, the Translation Service of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs delivered the translation of the bill of indictment in the German language on the 15th of September.
But what can we learn from this case about the consequences of not translating legal content?
- What happened confirms that legal translation is still considered as an unnecessary and trivial service in Greece, even by some legal professionals themselves. It is worth noting that in the preparatory stage of the proceedings a State Prosecutor didn’t grant the request for the translation of the bill of indictment made by the non-Greek nationals, on the grounds that the defendants had already provided a statement of defence and had been apprised of the charge sheet, therefore the translation of the bill of indictment was not necessary. The content of legal documents though is what determines the outcome of a court case. In criminal matters, by issuing a bill of indictment the Judicial Council is in effect deciding to bring the defendant to trial, if it finds that there is sufficient evidence to support the charges against him. The content of that document will shape the defendant’s defence and will determine a number of other rights that he has under Greek law, such as =his right to appeal the decision of the Judicial Council. Let’s hope that the Siemens story doesn’t need to be repeated, before we can realise how important the translation of legal documents is, both in and out of the courtroom, and what consequences not translating legal content can have.
- The services of legal translators should be engaged from the outset in legal cases where it is anticipated that there will be a need for legal content to be translated, in order for delays of this kind to be avoided. Legal translators are not only valuable, but also necessary aides in cases where there are foreign elements. So choose your translators from the outset and keep them updated about any developments or changes in your case. How much faster would the Siemens case have progressed from one stage to the next, if the services of legal translators had been engaged from the beginning and if the translation of every essential legal document had been secured right after it was drafted?
- Assign the translation of your legal documents to specialised translators, who know the legal system of the country in which the documents are being drafted, as well as the legal system of the country into whose language they are translating. Let’s not forget that the essential aim of the translation in the Siemens case was to provide the foreign defendants with the opportunity to exercise their right to defend themselves. No matter how good the German language skills of the translators are, if they are not familiar with the legal system of Greece, they won’t be able to grasp the meaning of the terms found in legal documents. No matter how well they know the Greek legal system, if they are not familiar with German legal terminology as well, they won’t be able to choose the most suitable term, in order to fulfil the aim of the translation for its final recipient.
Besides the Siemens case, there are also other cases where not translating legal content had adverse consequences and often incurred extra costs. A recent excellent example we have already highlighted was the WhatsApp
By Eva Angelopoulou
Eva is an English / German to Greek legal translator. She holds a Master’s in Law and a Postgraduate Degree in Specialised Translation. She worked as a legal practitioner in Greece for 7 years and has been bringing her expertise and knowledge to the translation industry for the last 3 years. She is an SDL-certified translator and is obsessed with languages. Besides working with language, she also really enjoys travelling. She has lived in Greece, Germany and Belgium and is now based in Ireland.