ABU DHABI // Mohammed Agha stood in front of three judges presiding over a theft case and told them, clearly and assertively: “I am innocent, I did not do that.”
He stressed he was present at a construction site by accident when police arrested his colleagues on suspicion of stealing cables and selling them on the black market.
But he is not the defendant. His words are not his own. He is a court translator.
Mr Agha, 56, is one of 53 experts brought into the court to bolster the ranks of skilled linguists, who must ensure accurate communication between judge and defendant. In addition to language, officials say, they must also understand the legal environment.
The department’s translators come from cultural and linguistic backgrounds that match the demands of the culturally diverse city of Abu Dhabi.
As a group, they speak Arabic, English, Urdu, Russian, Farsi, Nepalese, Bengali, Tagalog, Pashto, Malay, Indonesian, Mandarin, Malayalam, Sinhala, Tamil, Oromo and Amharic.
Mr Agha said he worked in the first-person form because he believed it conveyed more effectively the essence of the accused’s defence.
“A court translator is an original member of the judiciary,” said Mr Agha, who translates for the Abu Dhabi Court of Misdemeanours. “He speaks on behalf of the judges and the defendants.”
Even a minor error by a court translator, several translators pointed out, could mean additional prison time for a defendant. In 2008, for example, a Sudanese judge in Sharjah adjourned the hearing of Shahid King Bolsen, an American charged with murder, after the English-to-Arabic translator said Bolsen pleaded guilty to first degree murder. The judge, who was fluent in English, understood Bolsen was in fact pleading guilty to accidentally killing a man.
Abdullah Mohammed, 25, a translator for Abu Dhabi Criminal Court of First Instance, last week checked with a witness several times as to whether his testimony meant a defendant had criminal intent or whether it was merely the witness’s impression.
“It would make a lot of difference [to the court] if you mean to say the defendant knew the documents were forged or that is just your impression,” Mr Mohammed explained.
In an interview, he offered another example, saying there was a significant difference between pleading guilty to attempting to steal cables and stealing cables.
“If the defendant is arrested while he is carrying the cables with the intent to take them away and later benefit from them, that is considered attempted theft,” Mr Mohammed said.
“If he is arrested after he has already taken them away, then that is theft and the punishment would of course be tougher.”
Translators are often tasked with moderating court proceedings if defendants digress instead of entering a plea.
Another issue a translator should be aware of, he said, was that defendants often did not know the meaning of legal terms and might confess to a charge unwittingly. A translator should simplify the term for a defendant and translate its meaning rather than restate the technical term.
“I would translate the definition of the legal term rather than the term itself,” Mr Mohammed said.
In a recent case, an Emirati woman charged with consensual sex after a man blackmailed her into the act said she confessed to “consensual sex” until her lawyer explained the meaning to her.
She then said she was coerced and had unwittingly confessed to consensual sex before prosecutors without understanding the term.
Mr Mohammed said in a case where a defendant spoke a language in which he was not fluent, he would ask for another interpreter to take over.