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I’m going to make a call or I’m going to make him cold?

If a linguist does not do his job properly, it may turn out badly

Forensic linguistics is a field where language and prosecution of criminals come together with the aim of solving crimes. Witness statements and legal documents are carefully investigated when the content is suspected or incomprehensible. Tony Foster, terminologist on the field of forensic linguistics, has already more than twenty-five years of experience in this profession. ‘It is actually a kind of code language if you have not studied this field’.

Tony Foster is a passionate jack-of-all-trades. He graduated in English, classical languages, and law at Leiden University. From 1990 onwards, he has been active as a teacher of English. Already early in his career, he was asked to teach an elective, Legal English, to law students. ‘I found out very quickly that I knew nothing about legal language. It is a very specific jargon. So, I decided to study law.’ Since 2002, Foster also became a teacher of the course Legal Translation and Comparative Criminal Law. Outside the university, he even teaches lawyers, judges, prosecutors, and legal advisors. ‘The most exciting time for me was when I had to give a lecture at the Supreme Court of the Netherlands in The Hague to the highest tax judges of the country’, says Foster with a big smile. Translation and interpretation on forensic field have been his specialities ever since.

With full enthusiasm, Foster presents his self-written book Dutch Legal Terminology in English and puts it on his table. ‘Nowadays lawyers run into a big problem when they have to communicate with people from abroad on the Dutch law.’ Foster noticed this problem and immediately devoted himself to solve this issue. Since then, he attended and interpreted lawsuits in countries as the United States, England and the Philippines.

Translation problem
During his research, Foster encountered a problem right away. ‘On one hand, you have the lawyers, and, on the other hand, you have the linguists. However, both parties do not know enough about each other’s language in their work. How does one translate or interpret a particular term? Then one may think just to look it up in a dictionary. But, at the time when I began, legal dictionaries did not even exist’, explains Foster.

The question in his research was in particular which criteria such a dictionary had to meet. ‘At the same time, I had to investigate when two terms in two different languages were so closely related that you could translate them to each other. That was a huge task!’, says Foster. ‘Is moord the same as murder or contract the same as agreement? In order to know that, you must have knowledge of the legal systems and how to define terms.’

Subsequently, he grabs his book Dutch Legal Terminology in English from the table. ‘Believe it or not, this book is sold quite well in the Netherlands’, says a surprised Foster. In this book, the end-result of his research, he explains how problematic terms in the translation came into being in legal context. Currently, there is a huge interest from the European Union in legal dictionaries. ‘This year (2015 ed.), a conference from the European Union in Czech Republic was being held on standardizing those terms. Yet, the question remains how, which is still being figured out.’

‘I find words to be very interesting. It sounds quite banal. It is not very sexy and exciting, but it is really so’, feels Foster on the profession as terminologist. Especially the interaction between two cultures at the translation process engages him. ‘Different legal systems make different cultural choices and you can derive that from their everyday and legal language. I have done many cases as interpreter and translator between the Netherlands and England, the Netherlands and Wales, and the Netherlands and the United States’, says Foster.

As an example, Foster talks on his experience as diplomatic translator for the embassy of the Philippines during a court session. ‘A Dutchman and his German friend had molested a child. So, they were arrested for that in the Philippines. On bail, they were eventually released and went back to the Netherlands. In the meantime, in the Netherlands, it was set punishable to have sex with children abroad. Subsequently, they still got sentenced. Thereafter, the Philippine ambassadors and me celebrated it in the McDonald’s!’, says a laughing Foster.

Yet, there is still some risk associated with the job as translator and interpreter. ‘Of course it is possible to make mistakes in this field. We are applied to an obligation of effort: we must do our work as good as possible. However, we cannot guarantee results’, says Foster. The risks can involve towering compensations, threats, and even hostages. ‘One of my colleagues was once held hostage in a courtroom in Arnhem. Some colleagues even receive a threat of their client if they have not done their job properly’, says Foster with a serious tone.

If a linguist does not do his job properly, it may even turn out badly for the suspect. Foster reminds a tapping case in Brabant where it almost went wrong. ‘The linguist thought to have heard that the suspect said in English: “I’m going to make him cold”, but that is not an expression in English. The suspect would have probably said: “I’m going to make a call.” Due to this small mistake, the suspect could have ended up in jail. Making a call is namely not punishable in the Netherlands.”

Due to the high demand for legal translators and interpreters, there is a growth in popularity of the forensic fieldwork. ‘Nowadays, countries are increasingly working together, which means that more people are needed who can communicate inside the legal domain’, says Foster. With the emergence of social media, deciphering of Internet language is also involved. Even the language of the underworld is investigated in this field. ‘I always say to my wife that I never get a case about a ‘juicy’ shoplift’, says an unfortunate Foster. ‘But maybe that is still to come!’

For the time being, Foster still finds his current job appealing and challenging enough. As a translator and interpreter, he has been involved in at least hundred lawsuits. Now he has put the focus on the next step in his research. He wants to show how lawyers have attained a certain translation and explain step by step how such a translation process operates. ‘Otherwise, you do not know if the translation is reliable enough’, says Foster. While looking out of his window, Foster talks about his future: ‘Besides teaching my English students, which I enjoy a lot, I will continue to do legal translation and interpretation the rest of my life as well.’

by Rasheed Asraf