Spirit of Hong Kong

Lost in translation: court Interpreter's daily battle

High-profile trials caused sleepless nights as Tsang tried to maintain speed and accuracy in the face of enormous pressures

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 30 March, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 02 December, 2013, 12:19pm

After 25 years as a court interpreter, Tsang Man-sang felt the pressure begin to mount.

The man who once worked on the sensational trial arising from the kidnap of tycoon Teddy Wang Teh-huei found his short-term memory was no longer good enough to cope with the demands of instantaneous translation in a job where the outcome of a case could hinge on the accuracy of his work.

So he decided to call it quits 11 years ago at the relatively young age of 47.

"The pressure increases when you age. You start to find the retention of your short-term memory becoming shorter making it more difficult to remember what the witnesses and the counsel have said. The quick fix is you ask the witnesses and counsel to stop for a while to let you translate," Tsang told the South China Morning Post.

The pressure increases when you age. You start to find the retention of your short-term memory becoming shorter making it more difficult to remember what the witnesses and the counsel have said
Court interpreter, Tsang Man-sang

"Once the hearing starts, your brain has to start working, immediately turning the sentence you hear from English to Chinese or the other way around while you have to remind yourself of the accuracy of the translation. This goes on all day, every day, until the end of the trial and that creates the stress," he said.

Tsang, who joined the judiciary as a court clerk in 1972, was attracted by the higher salary of an interpreter and switched jobs in 1977 after receiving a year of training. These days he runs his own translation business which he says has its own stresses - but not those of immediate interpretation.

He said the biggest pressures on a court interpreter arose from cases which drew widespread public and media attention.

"In those cases, the courtroom is swamped by journalists who are listening to your translation. All the attention will be on you. If you make a mistake, the parties or counsel will immediately draw the judge's attention to it," he said.

He was so nervous before the 1991 Wang case - in which four men were charged with kidnapping the husband of late billionaire Nina Wang Kung Yu-sum in 1990 - that he could not sleep the night before.

"One of the challenges of a criminal trial is you are not able to predict what the witnesses will say in the witness box leaving you completely unprepared," he said. "Equally, doing translation for litigants who are not legally represented is a challenge as parties who don't understand court procedures and don't have the legal knowledge will tell the court something which may be completely incomprehensible."

Tsang, who mostly worked on personal injury civil cases, said he always spent one or two days preparing for a trial - even one lasting just a day - reading through legal documents on the background of the case and looking up special terms from dictionaries and reference books.

"For personal injury cases, the preparation is not limited to medical terms but also the circumstances in which the victims have been injured.

"For construction accidents, you have to be familiar with both the English and Chinese terms in relation to the construction sites. Once I was handling a case involving an injured golf club worker and I needed to check golf terms. So the learning process is never-ending," he said.

During the inquiry into the National Day ferry disaster in February, families of two victims criticised the performance of the interpreter.

In 2001, the Court of Appeal quashed the first conviction in a murder case and ordered a retrial because a court interpreter omitted some words while translating the trial judge's direction from English to Cantonese.

But Tsang defended his former colleagues.

"Most likely it was due to the pressure on the interpreters who become nervous and may not perform as well as they normally do when facing the media.

"The solemn atmosphere inside the courtroom can easily give rise to anxiety. I have told my junior colleagues that if they are unable to overcome the anxiety and deal with the atmosphere inside the courtroom, they should think again about whether the job suits them," he said.

After leaving the judiciary in 2002, Tsang set up his business providing translation services, written and oral, to both the public and private sectors, including government departments, tribunals and law firms.

He said his income was about the same as in the judiciary, but without the same pressures. "Running my own business is a different kind of pressure. Now I have to handle an avalanche of translation work," he added.