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Featured Article from The ATA Chronicle (February 2008)

Delivering Multilingual Justice: A Look into the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia

By Isabelle Der-Kévorkian

Established by Resolution 827 of the United Nations (UN) Security Council in May 1993, the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY) is the first international body established for the prosecution of war crimes since the Nuremberg and Tokyo trials took place in the aftermath of World War II. The ICTY has the authority to prosecute four types of offenses: grave breaches of the 1949 Geneva Conventions; violations of the laws or customs of war; genocide; and crimes against humanity. Its mission is to:

• Contribute to the restoration of peace by prosecuting persons allegedly responsible for serious violations of international humanitarian law.

• Render justice to the victims of war crimes.

• Deter further crimes.

This article will highlight a few of the challenges routinely encountered by translators at the ICTY.

Conference and Language Services Organization and Processes
Translators at the ICTY are divided into different language units that are grouped under the larger Conference and Language Services Section. The Conference and Language Services Section is part of the Registry, which is the organizational branch responsible for the administration and judicial support services of the ICTY, including the translation of documents and the interpretation of court proceedings. The Registry’s judicial responsibilities cover the organization of the hearings, the legal filings and archives, the operation of the legal aid program for indigent defendants, the provision of assistance and protection to witnesses, and the management of the detention unit.

For such a large organization, the ICTY’s workflow can seem surprisingly simple and old-fashioned. First, the Registry sends translation requests to the relevant language unit, where they are received by the administrative staff. Documents are then assigned to a translator according to availability and expertise. Once the document is translated (using either a translation memory tool or, most often, simply MS Word), it is printed and edited by a reviser, who is tasked with correcting mistakes and making any necessary stylistic or preferential changes. All changes made by the reviser are handwritten and then returned to the translator, who enters them in the electronic document. The final product is returned to the Registry and uploaded to the ICTY’s judicial database, where it resides along with all jurisprudence for use and reference by staff members and judges.

A Hybrid Legal System
—which is used in the U.S., the U.K., and Canada—is the predominant legal system at the ICTY. In common law, the judges act as impartial referees between the parties involved in a trial. Judges can make or refine the law when the existing jurisprudence does not make a clear enough statement concerning the case at hand. In civil law—which is practiced throughout Europe and Latin America—the judges must follow existing rules and regulations.

The dual nature of the ICTY gives rise to a number of translation challenges. It is easy enough to get around by calling judges “Your Honor,” but how do you deal with legal concepts from other countries that do not exist in your target language? For instance, how do you translate “aiding and abetting” into French or, worse, “aider” and “abettor?” In this instance, the concept expressed by the French term complicité seems to come closest to being an adequate equivalent, yet it lacks the precision of the English phrase. The same difficulty arises with the concepts of “multiple hearsay evidence,” “double jeopardy,” and mens rea, which can refer, depending on the context, to the moral element of a crime, the culpable intention of its author, or to a superior’s knowledge of crimes committed by one of his subordinates.

Another trap the translator must avoid are false friends—words in two languages or dialects (or letters in two alphabets) that look and/or sound similar, but differ in meaning—which abound in the Tribunal’s legal terminology. For example, in English, a deposition refers to the oral declarations made by a witness prior to the commencement of a trial, whereas the French term déposition applies solely to a statement given at a trial (testimony).

Two Official Languages
The ICTY has around 1,100 staff members from 81 countries. Its two official languages are French and English, but the vast majority of decisions are rendered in English, which is also the language used most often by the organization’s trial attorneys and lawyers. Because of this, translators seeking to be employed by the ICTY will have a difficult time getting hired if they are not intimately acquainted with the subtleties of the English language. While most documents are initially prepared in English, they are often the product of nonnative English speakers who may not have mastered the finer points of common law terminology and procedures, which makes the translation of legal texts extremely challenging.

Multiple Language Combinations
’s Statute,1 which sets out the rights guaranteed to the defendant to ensure a fair trial, stipulates that the accused is entitled to communicate in a language he or she understands, the Tribunal has another working language: Bosnian-Croatian-Serbian (BCS). BCS is the politically correct solution coined by the ICTY to designate the language formerly known as Serbo-Croatian, different variants of which were spoken throughout Yugoslavia.

Translators at the ICTY translate from and into French, English, and BCS, but not always directly. For instance, documents drafted in BCS are first translated into English and then, if necessary, into French, which often results in the loss of information and nuance that this extra layer of translation entails. However, BCS itself cannot be considered as one language, despite the Tribunal’s best efforts. Some defendants with strong nationalistic views insist that they only understand “their” flavor of the language, and demand that everything be translated into that particular dialect. Such a request creates an enormous burden on translators by giving rise to motions, replies, and responses filed while the legal parties fight over whether this falls within the rights guaranteed by ICTY’s Statute. When the trial chamber is presided over by a French-speaking judge, it also means that all the document submissions are going to require translation into French.

Obviously there are some limits when it comes to delivering multilingual justice. It can be a difficult balancing exercise to reconcile, on the one hand, the rights of defendants to communicate in a language they can understand in order to receive a fair and speedy trial, and, on the other, the financial and logistical demands of the Tribunal.

Dealing with References
All submissions for translation, particularly judgments, make extensive reference to legal publications and to decisions rendered by foreign courts, international legal bodies such as the European Court of Human Rights, and, of course, to previous decisions of  the ICTY itself. Translating such references is no easy task when the duty to be true to the quoted original conflicts with the fact that terminology often differs between legal institutions. It can be quite a challenge just dealing with references to the ICTY’s principal internal documents, such as its Statute and the Rules of Procedure and Evidence, which govern the conduct of trials.

For the most part, the ICTY’s internal documents were drafted at the time the organization was established. As such, the terminology in these documents has evolved, in part because the law is ever changing, but mostly because, through a trial and error process, new and improved translations for common law concepts have been discovered. For example, in international criminal law, the notion of deportation strictly refers to the legal transfer of a population beyond national borders. Mostly in order to avoid the negative connotations of the word, the term was translated in the ICTY Statute as “expulsion.” However, again strictly under international criminal law, expulsion is but a means of deportation.

Complex Legal Conclusions
Translators at the ICTY must also deal with documents filled with complex legal reasoning, which requires extensive research even before translation can start. This is a difficulty that is compounded by the fact that translators are not trained jurists.

Sharing Documents
Although translation memory tools are available at the ICTY, they are rarely used for a variety of reasons that fall outside the scope of this article. Thus, translators have to resort to old-style solutions, such as creating manual glossaries, to guarantee consistent terminology.

My background is in localization, an industry heavily governed by time and budget constraints. Regardless of whether I worked as a translator, project manager, or manager of translation services, I always had to balance my priorities as a translator with the client’s quality expectations, and to deal with the ever-existing pressure of doing more, at a faster pace, and for a cheaper price. It has been my experience that international organizations such as the ICTY have entirely different needs. Although those who have never worked in the private industry may disagree, there is really only one priority in such organizations: quality. There is a close-to-zero tolerance for mistakes at the ICTY, since someone’s future may depend on a misunderstood or poorly translated nuance. This is a most welcome relief, as it allows the translators to give their best and concern themselves only with their craft.

The one piece of advice I have for those of you out there who have always dreamed of working for an international organization is to keep applying. There is nothing like the feeling that you are doing something that truly matters.

1. ICTY Statute,


ICTY Homepage

ICTY Links to Glossaries and Press Briefings

Geneva Conventions

Isabelle Der-Kévorkian is a professional translator and interpreter who started her career as a freelance interpreter for the European Union. She spent eight years working in a variety of roles for a leading localization company. In November 2005, she left a position as a translation manager in Boulder, Colorado, to join the United Nations’ International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia in The Hague, Netherlands, where she currently translates from English into French. Contact: