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Breaking language barriers in court

Ledile Norah Lehobye

Being multilingual landed Ledile Norah Lehobye an exciting career that is not only stimulating but also helps ensure justice for all. She was only 23 when, in 2009, she was recruited as an interpreter at Modimolle Magistrate Office in Limpopo.

Now 32, Lehobye is the youngest court interpreter at the Pretoria North Magistrate Court.

She spoke to PSM about how her love of languages has shaped her life.

“Before starting my job as an interpreter, I worked at a bank in Modimolle as a teller, customer service consultant and enquiries clerk. One day, a princpal interpreter from

the local magistrate court heard me speaking a number of languages fluently

while I was assisting people at the bank, and he asked me if I was interested in becoming an interpreter,” she recalled.

“I was a bit lost because I did not know that people had jobs as interpreters. He explained it to me and I was intrigued. He told me that there were vacancies at his workplace and I applied. The process took forever; by the time I got a call inviting me to an interview, I had forgotten that I’d applied for the job,” Lehobye added.

Despite this, she was offered the position and so began an exciting journey for Lehobye, who is Tsonga and has a Pedi husband. She is able to speak Afrikaans, Sepedi, Xitsonga, English and Setswana fluently and also knows a bit of Tshivenda and isiZulu.

After getting married, she moved to Pretoria where her husband had a medical practice and secured a job in 2014 as an Afrikaans interpreter at the Pretoria North Magistrate Office.

Learning a new language

“I have been commended for speaking Afrikaans very well, even by people whose home language is Afrikaans. Some tell me that I even speak it better than them,” she said.

Lehobye grew up in Bela-Bela in Limpopo and Afrikaans was the most spoken language in her area; even schools had Afrikaans as a medium of instruction.

“I attended Hoërskool Warmbad and the only language that was spoken there was Afrikaans. The English teacher would sometimes speak Afrikaans during his period and I would not understand, so I took it upon myself to learn the language. I saw it as an opportunity to grow,” she explained.

“Every day when I got home, I would speak to my dad in Afrikaans, and he would buy me Afrikaans newspapers and books, and I would read them. That enabled me to take my knowledge of the language to the next level,” Lehobye added.

She also performed poetry in Afrikaans during school competitions and took part in musicals.

Although she loves Afrikaans, Lehobye said it does not take away her roots or her mother tongue, which she loves even more.

At the Pretoria North Magistrate Court, she interprets not only Afrikaans but all the other languages that she speaks, whenever it is necessary.

She believes that once you speak to people in a language they understand, they are able to open up and express themselves. This helps her contribute to getting justice for the people.

“Sometimes I find myself having to interpret Sepedi, Xitsonga, Afrikaans and English simultaneously during a court case,” Lehobye said.

“For instance, the court speaks in English, the witness could be Afrikaans speaking, the accused could be Sepedi speaking, and I would have to interpret to the witness and the accused and also in- terpret to the magistrate in all those languages,” she explained.

Interpreting justice

Lehobye is aware of the impact she has on people’s lives. If she does not interpret accurately, she could either help send someone to jail for something they did not do, or free someone who is supposed to be jailed.

She added that having interpreters in courts has brought a lot of change, liberation and freedom to South Africa’s diverse society, especially black people, because in the olden days Afrikaans was the main language that was spoken in courts. Without interpreters, language is a barrier and mistakes can be made because of miscommunication.

Even now that there are interpreters in court, Lehobye acknowl- edged that many black people still suffer because some refuse to make use of interpreters and end up speaking a language they do not fully understand, all because they want to impress.

“Court is a very scary place and many accused do not fully understand what is going on, so when they get into that environment they forget who they are.

“They want to speak languages that they do not understand properly because the magistrate is a white person. This is dangerous because a person can be imprisoned due to miscommunication and misunderstanding, even if they are not guilty,” she warned.

Her job is to put people at ease and make them comfortable enough to speak in a language that they understand, to interpret for them what is being said and to interpret their speech so that the magistrate can understand what they are saying.

New experiences

Her days are never predictable as she gets to interpret in different courts, including the maintenance court, sexual offences court, domestic violence court, harassment court, criminal courts and regional court.

“I love my job. Every day comes with a different experience. I could never go to court today and experience what I did yesterday,” said Lehobye.

Knowing different languages is not all it takes to be a good interpreter. Lehobye said she has

to have exceptional listening skills and to instantly think of words in different languages while listening to someone else speak.

“You do not get the time to pause or read; you always feel like you are in a traffic jam because you have to relay messages between differ- ent people in different languages. There was a time when we referred to ourselves as ‘air traffic communicators’,” she said.

Challenges of the job

Although she loves her job, she acknowledged that sometimes she is affected by the stories she hears during court cases.

“The sexual offences court is the most traumatising one. As a woman it is hard to listen to other women telling the court how they were violated, or even a child who does not understand what was being done to them.”

Lehobye has a five-year-old daughter and thus finds child abuse cases very distressing. She has had to seek counselling in the past to work through her court experiences.

Lehobye said that talking and sharing with colleagues helps to release the stress. The court also has a health and wellness programme, which includes counselling services.

Lehobye is currently studying towards her Bachelor of Arts in Social Work through the University of South Africa (Unisa) and sometimes applies what she has learnt to help her work through the things she sees and hears in court.

Perks of being the youngest

Being the youngest among her colleagues comes with a lot of perks.“I get to be treated like a princess most of the time,” she said.

“I still remember the day I started working at this office. My colleagues saw this child and they put her under their wing. Since then, it has just been amazing and I have grown so much in this career; I even gained weight.”

On the other hand, being the youngest means that some of the stakeholders that she works with do not take her seriously.

Lehobye said because South Africa is a diverse country with 11 official languages, she does not see why she should limit herself to just her mother tongue and the languages she learned at school. She learnt the other languages casually, in different environments and circumstances, but made an extra effort to speak them properly by paying attention to detail in terms of pronunciation and the context.

Lehobye plans to start practising as a social worker in the near future and believes that her ability to speak different languages will enable her to easily connect with her clients.

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