Lost in Translation

THE prosecution considers his testimony crucial to its case against Datu Unsay Mayor Andal Ampatuan Jr., who stands accused in the November 23 mass murder of 57 people in Maguindanao. But Ampatuan town Vice Mayor Rasul Sangki’s words were almost lost in translation as the interpreter appointed by the court struggled to keep up with his testimony, which he gave in a mixture of Filipino and Maguindanaoan.

Sangki took the witness stand January 13, Day Two in the bail hearing of Ampatuan Jr. He was the second witness to be presented by the prosecution since the hearing began on January 5, but the first to directly link Ampatuan Jr. to the November 23 carnage that took place in Sangki’s area of jurisdiction.

Replying to queries from Senior State Prosecutor Leo Dacera, Sangki said that Ampatuan Jr. had followed orders from his father, Andal Ampatuan Sr. He said that he had overheard conversations between father and son the conversations, during which the older Ampatuan had allegedly told Ampatuan Jr., “You know what to do.”

He then detailed how Ampatuan Jr., with the aid of police and members of his private army, blocked the convoy led by Genalyn Mangudadatu, wife of Buluan Vice Mayor Ismael Mangudadatu that fateful November morning in Sitio Malating.

Sangki, who admitted to having complied with Ampatuan Jr.’s order to join the Datu Unsay mayor’s group at Crossing Saniag, also said he had heard an exchange between the accused and Chief Inspector Sukarno Dicay, the deputy provincial police chief who was monitoring the arrival of the convoy. According to Sangki, he appealed to Ampatuan Jr. to talk things out before he went on a shooting rampage. But Ampatuan Jr. did not heed him, he said; instead, the accused and his men even fired at the victims a second time to make sure there would be no survivors.

Aside from the wife and sisters of Vice Mayor Mangudadatu, those who lost their lives in the massacre included human-rights lawyers, at least 30 journalists, and ordinary motorists who just happened to be on the same highway at the same time as the convoy.

Sangki’s testimony, which he gave in a makeshift courtroom in Camp Crame in Quezon City, lasted almost six hours. Yet just several minutes after he began speaking, it became clear that court interpreter Maria Estrella Abarcar of Quezon City Regional Trial Court (RTC) Branch 221was having problems translating his statements into English.

Abarcar likewise displayed some difficulty in translating from English to Filipino the questions posed by Dacera to Sangki, who is more conversant in Filipino and Maguindanaon.

English is the standard language in Philippine courts, which also record their proceedings in English.

Several times during the hearing, Judge Jocelyn Solis-Reyes had to interrupt Abarcar’s translation in mid-sentence to more accurately formulate the question in Filipino for the witness. In many instances, she even had to prompt Abarcar when the latter failed to translate right after the witness replied. Abarcar, who stood directly beside the seated Sangki, sometimes had to ask the witness to repeat his answer as well, especially when he mentioned several locations in Ampatuan town where the convoy of the 57 slain victims passed through.

Defense lawyer Sigfrid Fortun also called the attention of the court when Abarcar could not provide an accurate translation of the witness’s reply to his questions during the cross-examination. On one occasion, Fortun had to repeat his English-language query word for word for Abarcar, who in turn was translating in the same manner for the witness; but the judge quickly put a stop to that. There were several instances, however, when Solis-Reyes took it upon herself to translate questions for the witness, bypassing the interpreter.

The most absurd moment perhaps was when some impatient members of the audience began translating the queries in unison for the witness. A visibly peeved Abarcar also snapped a sharp “Sorry!” to the audience, even motioning to prosecution lawyers that they take her place beside the witness.

It would have been much simpler, of course, had Sangki spoken in English, which is widely used in this country and has been the ticket to employment of hundreds of thousands of Filipinos seeking jobs overseas. But just like many Filipinos, Sangki is apparently more comfortable speaking in Filipino and his local tongue, switching from one to another in midsentence.

Maguindanaon is one of the Philippines’ twelve regional languages and has about a million speakers in some parts of Mindanao, including the province of Maguindanao, Iranum in Bukidnon, North Cotabato, South Cotabato, Sultan Kudarat and Zamboanga del Sur. About 175 languages are spoken throughout the country, among them English.

Sangki, like the accused, belongs to a powerful Maguindanao clan, which means he is part of the social class that should have no problems with English. But as Ruanni Tupas, a lecturer and head of Research and Publications at the Center for English Language Communication at the National University of Singapore, observes, “If witnesses like Vice Mayor Sangki are understood within their daily lives (in their dialect), then their linguistic repertoire is probably already enough for them to function well in their situation.”

Abarcar, for her part, has been a court interpreter for 15 years but has had no formal training as an interpreter. She earned a degree in zoology in the same school where Judge Solis-Reyes finished law school. Abarcar served as the officer-in-charge Solis-Reyes’s courtroom in 2009 before returning to her duties as interpreter for the court this January, in time for Ampatuan’s bail hearings.

Although Solis-Reyes appeared ready to lose her cool during the bail hearing, court insiders say the judge has not lost trust in Abarcar, who is expected to continue her interpreter duties for the nine other witnesses still to be presented by the prosecution. One court insider says that Abarcar may have just been jittery during the hearing, which had some 50 journalists, local and foreign, covering it. And just like the other members of the court who were positioned on an elevated stage in the makeshift courtroom, Abarcar had a full view of the principal accused Andal Jr. and his lawyers.

In any case, reporters had to strain their ears trying to figure out what Abarcar was saying, partly because of the spotty audio system, and also because Abracar seemed to be speaking too softly.

Fortunately, Sangki replied mostly in Filipino, enabling local reporters to do the translating on their own. – PCIJ, January 2010