S. Korean Justice Lost in Translation?
Judge delays sexual assault trial over concerns about translator; other cases cited
By Ashley Rowland and Hwang Hae-rym, Stars and Stripes
Pacific edition, Sunday, June 3, 2007
SEOUL — A South Korean judge postponed the attempted rape trial of two U.S. soldiers on Friday after one of their attorneys complained about the skills of the court translator.
“Even though he pleaded guilty, all the defendants should understand correctly on what is going on at their court cases,” said Jin Hyo-guen, an attorney representing Sgt. Anthony Q. Basel, one of the accused soldiers.
Basel and Pfc. Marc C. Feldmann allegedly tried to rape an off-duty policewoman in a public bathroom last month.
The judge halted Friday’s proceedings in Seoul Central District Court after about 15 minutes following requests from Jin. The prosecutor, who said he had gotten inconsistent statements from the soldiers, also said he needed more time to prepare.
Outside the courtroom Friday, Jin said he would lodge a formal complaint with the court about the translation problems.
This isn’t the first time translators have been a problem for U.S. servicemembers being tried in South Korean courts.
The translator at Friday’s trial was removed from another case involving a U.S. soldier in Uijeongbu last year because of problems with his translations, Jin said.
A court official contacted late Friday said that translator was selected from a list of approved personnel provided by higher court officials. The official declined to answer additional questions.
Jin said translation in two other cases in Uijeongbu court last year was so bad it posed legal harm to his clients.
Using a court-assigned translator team, the judge asked two defendants, both U.S. soldiers, whether they “admitted” to certain elements in their unrelated cases.
One of two translators asked the soldiers if they were “aware” of those elements. Both said “yes” to nearly every question — potentially damning in a case where the charges are being denied.
The 2nd Infantry Division legal office asked Jin then to request new translators for the soldiers’ next hearings. He did, and the changes were made.
South Korea has no uniform standards for what language qualifications a court translator should have, and many are part-timers who show up claiming to speak English, legal officials say. And even those who speak the language well may not understand nuances of what a soldier is trying to say.
“I think even lawyers who are fluent in the English language cannot truly understand what a U.S. soldier needs or is really trying to explain,” said Sean Hayes, an American attorney consulting for the law firm representing Basel. “I think it’s very, very difficult for anyone who’s not a native speaker to truly understand what’s going on with the foreigner’s story.”
Some legal officials have said translators are underpaid, lowering the quality of potential translators in the court system.
Translators in Seoul are paid the equivalent of $75 for the first 30 minutes in court, and about $54 for each additional 30 minutes.