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Dundee Sheriff Court

Yesterday I read this article about a man in Dundee accused of some pretty horrid crimes. I would not be so crass as to discuss a case in court before the verdict but one thing about the article struck me as odd. The judge accepted the individual’s plea of not guilty, translated through a mobile phone app rather than through an interpreter.

According to the BBC News story:  “He speaks no English and there is no interpreter. I have taken instructions this morning via an iPhone translation app.  “The Crown summary of evidence and complaint was given to him in Polish but he can’t understand today’s proceedings.”

I wondered why no interpreter had been found for the defendant.  It seems it must be incredibly expensive to have to postpone the case!  Each postponed case costs the taxpayer, according to a Channel 4 News article something like £1,000. So why wasn’t an interpreter found? The article itself does not make it clear why. During the ALS fiasco, which was the subject of a recent commons select committee hearing,  we heard lots of terrifying stories of poorly qualified interpreters turning up to court, or cases abandoned because no interpreter could be found!

I worry that the experience of ALS has left the court system looking for other ways to cut costs, if outsourcing to one agency did not work – why not use machine translation? After all the news was awash yesterday with another story about Japanese mobile phone company NTT Docomo launching its live translator app, which runs speech through Voice Recognition Software, then through a Machine Translation, and then back through a speech synthesiser.

I love innovative technology and this has the potential to open up communication between individuals across the world who cannot afford a professional interpreter but a chain is only as strong as its weakest link and VR, MT and Speech Synthesis software are all at varying degrees of development and none perfected.  Lingua Translations offers a pay-as-you-talk live interpreter service Lingua Translations Talk, available from anywhere in the world, for when telephone conversations are too important to trust to a machine.

Surely legal proceedings are simply too important to trust to a machine to translate? Regular readers of our blog, or anyone who has ever Googled ‘funny translation mistakes’ or something similar will be aware of the problems of relying on MT software for translations.   For any case to be legitimate and definitive the defendant must be able to understand the charges brought against them, and be able to answer those claims by the prosecution. Do we really want to leave this up to the Machines which told Malaysian ministry of defence workers not to wear ‘clothes that poke in the eye’ and to remember the ‘mongoose fight’ for special functions?  I fear that might lead to lots more suspended cases, and lots more appeals ultimately costing the tax payer significantly higher sums than just hiring a professional, qualified, experienced interpreter in the first place.

There really is NO substitute, particularly when the outcome is too important to get wrong.  Hire a professional!


Lingua Translations was founded by professional linguists, who believe, understand, and love languages and the multilingual communication industry. Using tough admission procedures, we only employ professionals with a minimum of five years experience, who have university qualifications and a proven background in their field. For more information about our interpreting services see our page on Interpreting services, email or call +44 (0)1792 469990

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