Arts Commentary: Translating at the War-Crimes Tribunal in The Hague

Ratko Mladić

Former Bosnian Serb military commander Ratko Mladić is the latest to be tried before the the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia in The Hague.

A visiting scholar at UMASS Amherst, Ellen Elias-Bursać recently left her position as one of the translators at the Hague. In her compelling reflection on her experiences, Elias-Bursać talks about how translation shapes the work of the Tribunal. And how translating literary texts about war in her spare time provided her with “the homeopathy” she needed to deal with the Tribunal experience.

by Ellen Elias-Bursać

Translator Ellen Elias-Bursać in the revisers’ room at the Tribunal.

When I first agreed to work at the War Crimes Tribunal in the summer of 1998 everyone I spoke to about it asked me how I could bear to work on such disturbing, tragic material. I am still asked this question whenever I speak about translating at the Tribunal. It was the war, as far as I was concerned, that had been disturbing and tragic. My life had been circumscribed in many ways by what went on in the 1990s in Bosnia, Croatia, Serbia. Though I was an American and not from that part of the world initially, I had lived in Yugoslavia from 1974 to 1990 working as a free-lance translator. I may have been back in the States, an ocean away, by the time the war broke out in June 1991 but my distance offered me no protection from the savagery and losses that the war brought. I felt strongly that I would rather be using my skills constructively at the Tribunal to bring light to what had happened during those years than to be watching, helpless, from afar.

I worked at the Conference Language Services Section (CLSS) at the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (often referred to as the ICTY) in The Hague in shorter and longer stints for a total of six and a half years. When people hear this they assume I must have been a courtroom interpreter. But there is a great deal of translation going on at the Tribunal in addition to the interpreting in the courtroom. Most of the evidence tendered in the courtroom has been translated from Bosnian, Croatian, and Serbian, some of it also from Albanian and Macedonian, and all the official Tribunal documents, the judgments and indictments and all court submissions must be posted to the ICTY website in English and French and the languages of defendants and victims; these translations are done by teams of translators within the language services. CLSS translates for both the Prosecution and the Defense, but both the parties also have their own teams of language assistants to help them prepare for and run the trials.

Translation is part of every aspect of the work of the courtroom. In fact translation and interpreting disputes arise on a daily basis in the proceedings that are so germane at times to the trial that they merit inclusion in the trial judgments. Hence translation and the forces it sets in motion shape international justice, inform strategies for the Defense and Prosecution, and influence ICTY jurisprudence.

View of the ICTY Courtroom

When I came to the Tribunal I was asked to join a team of five revisers, people like myself who were native speakers of English but had lived for years in one or another part of the former Yugoslavia. The revisers were given the translations made by the twenty to thirty translators of the English Translation Unit and were asked to check through each document to make sure that when they were discussed in the courtroom they read well and conveyed the form and substance of the original. These translations were usually examined during the proceedings by the parties side-by-side with the original. Never has anything on which I have worked been so closely scrutinized.

I came to the job, as one does to any job, with certain expectations. And then things came up that took me completely by surprise. Of my misgivings which proved to be unfounded, for instance, one was the worry that the translators, many though not all of whom were from the former Yugoslavia, might have loyalty issues binding them to one side of the conflict or other, issues that might cloud their judgment when translating, and which I would be expected to call them on. Instead I found the translators welcomed the feedback we revisers gave them. Never did I have to edit a translation for bias.

I expected the Tribunal to be a remarkable place to work, and indeed it was. In my first years there indictees were being arrested almost weekly. In fact the pace of arrivals was so dizzying in those early years that I would often watch BBC World over breakfast before I went in to work just to check and see if anyone new had been brought in since I’d been there the day before. As I write this a total of 160 indictees have been processed of the 161 who were indicted, with only one fugitive, Goran Hadžić, still at large.

One of the more startling moments was when, in my first summer, I was shown a greeting card addressed to the staff of the language section, that had been signed and sent by the defendants at the detention unit, wishing the translators and interpreters a happy new year. At that point I had to face my own feelings about the alleged war criminals in the dock and face the fact that the defendants were our clients as much as the Prosecution or Chambers or the Tribunal administration (the Registry).

Exhumations 1 of 4 Srebrenica exhumation programme, Bosnia and Herzegovina, 1996. Photo: Courtesy of the ICTY

In June of 2001 I was working late one evening when a colleague told me Milošević was being brought in that night. He knew because he was working on the Serbian translations of the Court documents Milošević would be served upon his arrival in the Netherlands. By the time I got back to the place I was staying, word had gotten around, and my hosts, also Tribunal staff, had already left to wait near the jail for Milošević’s arrival. It was a cold night and he was brought in very late by helicopter, but I heard that many of my colleagues were there, waiting quietly in the dark and cold. I remember waking up the next morning with my ribs aching from sobbing in my sleep.

During those first years when I worked there most of the translations were of documents that Prosecution investigations needed so that they could build their cases. There were moments when the countries involved in the conflict released hundreds, or even thousands, of pages of documents that would be delivered to the Tribunal for analysis. Once the selection was made of what Investigations needed, these documents would be sent on to the English Translation Unit. There was a great variety of texts to be translated: minutes from meetings, combat reports, newspaper articles, war diaries, medical and autopsy reports, ballistics reports, and thousands of the laws that had been on the books in the former Yugoslavia. At its peak the English Translation Unit had an output of over 30,000 pages of translation per year.

The Tribunal started its work mid-war in 1993, and as there hadn’t been an institution like it since the trials following World War II, there was little understanding at first of how traumatic translation work could be, and what translators and interpreters and other staff members needed to help them deal with what they went through at work every day. A number of the colleagues I met when I first came to work in 1998 had been sent while the war was still on into the field to interpret for investigators interviewing witnesses. These early interviews were going on while the psychological wounds were fresh and the Tribunal was reviled by all the parties to the conflict. Often the interpreter found him or herself in the position of not only interpreting for the interview, but having to provide support for the witnesses as they struggled with the emotions brought up for them by revisiting the atrocities they had witnessed.

Only several years later did the Tribunal hire a staff psychologist who quickly became an essential part of the way staff members in all parts of the Tribunal processed their trauma.

My work as a reviser exposed me to no firsthand traumatic experience like that, though working on the written translation of evidence was often disturbing enough. I was surprised by what it was that moved and upset me. As anyone who deals professionally with disturbing documents or testimonies will know, identification is a strange and unpredictable business. If one of the people mentioned in a text I was working on had the birthday of someone I know, or a friend’s first name, or a familiar-sounding street address, or a vocation like mine—teacher or translator—suddenly what was happening to him or her was happening to me.

Bombing Destruction 2 of 10 UN Peace keepers collecting bodies from Ahmići, Bosnia and Herzegovina in April 1993 Photo: Courtesy of the ICTY.

Everyone who accepts employment at the Tribunal must sign a pledge to respect Tribunal confidentiality even after leaving the Tribunal. After all, many of the witness statements have been provided by protected witnesses whose lives would be endangered if their identities were leaked. That meant that if one of us worked on disturbing material and needed to talk about it with someone in order to limit the traumatic damage it was doing to us, the best we could do was to de-brief one another.

One day during my first summer there the team of revisers talked among ourselves about what each of us had found the most disturbing in our work. One colleague said she’d revised witness statements of person after person who had been forced to leave their homes at gunpoint, each taking with them only a small plastic bag. Another said he found the documents listing the names of those killed the hardest to work on. There would often be many members of a single family on the list, all with the same last name—whole extended families. He paid especially close attention to the accurate spelling of the names so that the translation would introduce no mistakes, mindful of a time years hence when someone might come to a post-Tribunal archive, asking for information about what was known of their relative or friend. Yet another spoke of being undone by statements from witnesses who had been in situations so dire that scores of the people around them, feeling there was no way out, committed suicide.

To my surprise I found it particularly difficult to work on transcripts of town-hall meetings held in the early months of the war, at which aggression, posturing, intimidation buzzed around the room. I kept thinking: these are the educated people of the town, the teachers, the doctors, the engineers, the priests, the businessmen and politicians, the leaders, the responsible people. With the sickening benefit of hindsight I knew what carnage their words and actions led to.

By the time I returned to the Tribunal in the fall of 2005 to stay for several years the work of the English Translation Unit had changed in character. By then all the investigations were over and the trials were in full swing. At that point the unit I worked in was focused largely on translations of evidentiary material for the Defense, as the Prosecution had had to disclose at the outset of each trial most of the documents they would be tendering in court. Unlike the witness statements, transcripts of meetings, and lists of the people killed we had done earlier for investigations and the Prosecution, the Defense counsel in the military trials tendered thousands upon thousands of pages of combat reports describing the day-to-day activities of individual military units.

There were times when I felt as if I were perpetually stuck, like in that film, Groundhog Day, in the spring of 1992 just as Bosnia was careening into conflict. At one point I went to Sarajevo to visit friends and was relieved, indeed surprised, to find that while I had been re-living the war over and over, the city was gradually rebuilding and leaving the war behind.

There was concern at the Tribunal that the language units were a potential source of breaches of confidentiality. We were cautioned not to list our phone numbers in the Hague telephone book, not to put our name on the doorbell where we were staying, or to give our last name when answering outside phone calls at the office. It was even suggested that we choose a different route to work every morning. In this overcharged atmosphere I went to Zagreb for a visit in the fall of 1999, just a month or so before the death of President Franjo Tudjman, a tense time in Croatia when the mood was sharply antagonistic toward the Tribunal. When I arrived in Zagreb from The Hague after connecting through another European city I opened my suitcase to unpack and found someone else’s belongings, a bowtie and a music cassette, in the suitcase on top of my own things. The Tribunal chief of security, whom I consulted about this when I got back, suggested it might well have been an accident, pure and simple, that the bags were being checked and searched en route, that someone’s luggage had tipped over and things had fallen out, and the security staff at the airport wasn’t sure whose belongings to return to which suitcase, but, on the other hand, he said, it might have been a sort of calling card, to let me know that they knew who I was and where I worked.

I settled in to the work, got to know the revisers and translators, relished spending every day discussing language and translation issues, and developed a taste for the Netherlands, particularly the smaller towns such as Delft, Haarlem, Gouda, Naarden, Zierikzee, and Brielle, and the many concerts of fine music. But the most important way I dealt with working on documents about the terrible things people do to each other was to immerse myself in my own translation projects in my spare time, most of them the translation of novels and books about war.

The first of these was a project translating a book of war testimonies, Svetlana Broz’s book Good People in an Evil Time, much like the witness statements we worked on at the Tribunal. I was drawn to it because I could see that the material she had collected provided an authentic picture of the war. When I was working at the Tribunal in the summer of 2002 I used my evenings and weekends to translate from Serbian into English David Albahari’s novel Götz and Meyer about the murder of Jews in Belgrade during World War II. He chose to imagine the lives and thinking of two historically authentic SS officers who regularly loaded groups of some fifty men, women, and children onto a truck rigged so that the carbon monoxide would asphyxiate the passengers as the officers drove the truck through Belgrade. The novel imagines one of the officers giving chocolates to the children before herding them on board the truck.

I had spent the summer of 1995 in Zagreb and remembered seeing television footage on the Zagreb news of Ratko Mladić walking around among crowds of displaced people near Srebrenica, giving the children candy. We had no idea yet of the massacres that were underway as we watched the footage. Albahari’s confrontation, through fiction, with criminal responsibility in war was very important for me. The translating of his words gave me a healing sense of agency. In later years while in The Hague I worked in the same way on translations from the Croatian of Dubravka Ugrešić’s book of essays Nobody’s Home and Daša Drndić’s novel Trieste. It might seem counter-intuitive that after a day of working on war-related material at the Tribunal I was glad to come home and translate disturbing, war-related writing, but in fact when a writer puts pen to paper and confronts war with depth and insight theirs is an act of courage, and it was the courage of these writers that provided me with the homeopathy I needed to help me in processing the Tribunal experience.

The Tribunal is downsizing at this point, and colleagues are leaving, as I did last year. By 2015 or so the trials will be over and most of the operation, numbering some 1500 staff members at its peak, will have shut down with the exception of a small residual mechanism. But a core of translators will be some of the last to go. They must remain for at least another year after the trials are finished, to complete translation of all the judgments.

Ellen Elias-Bursać has been translating novels, stories, and nonfiction by Bosnian, Croatian, and Serbian writers for the last twenty years. She has translated three books of David Albahari’s writing: Words Are Something Else, 1996, awarded the AATSEEL Award in 1998, for best translation from a Slavic or East European language; Gotz and Meyer, 2004 (Britain) and 2005 (US), awarded the National Translation Award by the American Literary Translation Association in 2006; and Snow Man (Canada) in 2005. She has also translated writing by Antun Šoljan, Dubravka Ugrešić, and Slobodan Selenić. She has co-authored a textbook for the study of Bosnian, Croatian, and Serbian with Ronelle Alexander, and has written a study on poet Tin Ujević and his work as a literary translator.


  1. Russell Valentino on August 27, 2011 at 9:42 am

    This is fantastic stuff, a tribute to the work of the translators involved. I can’t help wondering how translating for both the defense and the prosecution shaped the documents produced. I will wait for Ellen to write about that in her book!

  2. Sean Cotter on August 29, 2011 at 11:52 am

    What an amazing account. You’ve changed the way I read Götz and Meyer.

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