48. The unusual position of interpreters

Paul Quinlivan’s Snapshots

The mention of ‘former British, Spanish, Dutch or French colonies’ is an essential and recurring background theme because, as mentioned in No. 8, the first ‘business’ of my first day in Court in TPNG was devoted to the article on ‘Dangerous Rigidity of Colonial Judiciary’ in the then current issue of ASOPA’s journal South Pacific. And to Monte’s explanation of how lucky we were that our judges had deliberately changed much of the court’s procedures so that the people who packed the courts could see that, although the new procedures were not what they were used to, they had their own peculiar value. In later times those well-intended changes were thrown out and the courts were ‘Melbournised’ but we should be reminded, from time to time, of how different things might have been if that jettisoning had not taken place. Two of those changes are relevant to our discussion of Telefomin: one is the rule that an experienced Defending Officer must speak with a person committed for trial at the earliest possible time, to get his side of the story, and then defend him at the trial even though, to do so, may tread on his colleagues’ toes –– which we shall deal with in No. 51 –– the other is the attitude to official interpreters which we shall deal with now. 
Papua had been a British colony for many years before she was given to Australia so it followed the British tradition of having uniformed officials at every courthouse to do the interpreting. The Supreme Court of New Guinea, on the other hand, had only one interpreter before the war. He was a white man, a Mr Noel Barry, who interpreted from German to English! In all non-German cases the rule was that anybody and everybody could expect to be hauled in to do their duty as Court Interpreter if they could speak the language of the Accused! The fact that the Highlands were not discovered until close to the war, and that the court only sat in Rabaul (although, in the later years, it also sat, very occasionally, at Wau), helped keep this curious situation alive. After the war it was the Papua judge, Judge Gore, who returned first and he took the court everywhere in New Guinea, mainly to ‘show the flag’ as new areas were recaptured from the Japanese, but also because that was the system he thought was best. When Monte returned he heartily endorsed this part of Gore’s decision but, except for the newly opened Highlands, where uniformed interpreters had come in under the army, it was still a case of grabbing someone who could talk to the Accused, and there were no uniformed interpreters.

When I arrived in January 1952 Monte had adopted a policy of explaining this rule on every conceivable occasion. His method was by getting the interpreter to translate his speech about the Reichstag Fire Trial (which is dealt with in No. 3) and about the commissionaire at the Dorchester (or Savoy) Hotel in London where, although everyone is technically entitled to go in through the door of the hotel, you will find that your right is worthless unless you get into the uniformed gentleman’s personal favour. I do not think that Monte himself thought that Papua New Guineans were more likely than anyone else to top up their official pay by charging people who wanted to see the kiap to lay a complaint. I think it was simply the fact that his generation grew up on stories about how, in the Indian Mutiny, the official interpreters were uniformly disloyal. And we must also remember that, in the late 40s and early 50s the newspapers were full of stories about how disloyal officials brought about the collapse of the Dutch and French empires and that, day after day, our newspapers were telling us that Maumau (which involved the same thing) was destroying British Africa. He himself had served in the Emergency Forces during the Melbourne Police Strike and the third of his ‘usual lectures’ was about how well dressed ‘gentlemen’ in top hats would come out of their clubs and bash-in shop windows with their expensive canes simply because they knew there was nobody to arrest them! All of which makes Suni’’s constant maintenance of the Rule of Law so remarkable!


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