Academic journal article Refuge

Interpreting for Refugees: "Where Practicable and Necessary Only?"

Academic journal article Refuge

Interpreting for Refugees: "Where Practicable and Necessary Only?"

Article excerpt


Legal interpreting is a highly specialized profession, not simply a function that an), bilingual person can perform. Countries that have laws and regulations on court interpreting have them on the basis that everyone (including linguistic minorities) has the right to due process. In South Africa legal interpreting takes place in a variety of state institutions and the Refugee Reception Offices of the Department of Home affairs is one such setting. The present study investigates legal interpreting at asylum determinations and hearings. The focus is on two stages of the asylum application, which are crucial for determining refugee status. This paper aims to explore the right of an asylum seeker to an interpreter at these stages of the status determination procedure. It will also compare this right to the existing right in international law and assess whether South Africa has met the minimum requirement to enable a due process.


L'interpretation juridique est une profession hautement specialisee, et non une simple fonction que toute personne bilingue peut effectuer. Les pays qui ont des lois et des reglements sur l'interpretation juridique les ont developpes en raison d'une reconnaissance que tous (incluant les minorites linguistiques) ont droit a une procedure reguliere. En Afrique du Sud, l'interpretation juridique est pratiquee dans une variete d'institutions d'Etat, et le Bureau de l'Accueil des Refugies du Departement des Affaires Interieures en est un exemple. Cette etude examine en particulier la pratique de l'interpretation juridique lors des decisions et des audiences liees aux demandes d'asile. L'etude se concentre sur deux etapes de la demande d'asile, cruciales dans la determination du statut de refugie. Cet article explore le droit du demandeur d'asile a l'interpretation juridique durant ces deux etapes de la determination de son statut. On y compare egalement ce droit aux droits existants dans le droit international, et evalue si l'Afrique du Sud rencontre les conditions minimales necessaires a une procedure reguliere.


While court interpreting, (1) often referred to as legal interpreting, is far from a new issue, it is true that it has become a more complex one. With at least a quarter million people from twenty different countries entering South Africa annually for the purpose of seeking asylum (2) and therefore necessarily having to engage in a highly complex interaction with the government of South Africa at the Department of Home Affairs to acquire a legal status, the need for interpreters has increased tenfold. Whether stemming from a deliberate disregard of this complex status determination process at the Department of Home Affairs or from a failure to understand it, many asylum seekers have had to engage South African courts as well. More attention therefore needs to be paid to the use of interpreters in all legal settings in South Africa and not only at the Department of Home Affairs.

Many asylum seekers do not speak the language of the host country and as a result they depend on the skills of an interpreter. The question of what these skills should include, and the role the interpreter should play, is far from clear even beyond the Department of Home Affairs or South Africa generally. It is also debated internationally, with academic scholars and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (hereinafter the "UNHCR") favouring a liberal interpretation of the interpreter's role, while the judiciary, on the other hand, insisting on a restricted role. (3) This debate is based on the inherent problems which interpretation creates.

In 1952 Jean Herbert coined the phrase a 'necessary evil' for interpreters; (4) the law has progressed since and this 'necessary evil' has developed into a right. Interpretation is not an absolute right or a fundamental basic human right, but rather a procedural one that will be applied when 'practicable and necessary. …

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