Giving Voice to the Victims: Translating and Interpreting Sexual Violence at the ICC

On 23 April 2014 the Australian Human Rights Centre was treated to an emotion-charged account of the challenges of interpreting for international crime trials. Alexandra Tomic is the Chief of Court Interpretation and Translation Section at the International Criminal Court and was trained as an interpreter at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY). Assistant Professor Ludmila Stern of UNSW first recounted her own experience of interpreting for Australian war crimes trials and then at the ICTY, where she met Ms Tomic, emphasising the complexity and crucial nature of this task. 

Ms Tomic then held the capacity-filled room captive as she recounted the harrowing experience of interpreting for victims and suspects of atrocious crimes. Many lessons were learned at the ICTY about how to sensitively conduct interpretation, particularly during fieldwork interviews and in relation to sexual violence. Ms Tomic brought tears to many eyes as she recalled interpreting testimony from Srebrenica mothers, reminding us that when interpreting for witnesses in the courtroom, “You are their voice” – and sometimes, it feels, the only one really listening. She described how sometimes silences that can’t be translated say so much, such as when a mother is casually asked if “that was the day your child died?” – and then Ms Tomic paused. The riveted audience responded with aching silence. 

She then explained the immense challenge of translating terms about rape and sexual violence with the legal specificity required at trial, in a sensitive and appropriate manner. This often requires the use of euphemisms and is always a delicate process. When translating horrifying experiences, the interpreter must be professional, but remember that it is human to be moved. One way of coping, as Ms Tomic quietly noted, is to just accept that the emotions are there. One felt Ms Tomic’s years of facilitating communication have enhanced her own ability to convey a great deal more than words. As Professor Louise Chappell pointed out at the close of the session, Ms Tomic reminded us all of the essential role played by front-line court staff to facilitate international crimes trials - but also, to try and give victims a voice.

With thanks to Emma Palmer, PhD Candidate, for the above notes from the seminar.