Posted by: SSU Lingua Franca | December 1, 2015

A Conversation with Ellen Elias-Bursac

A Conversation with Ellen Elias-Bursac, translator for the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia

by Kristine Doll

Ellen Elias-Bursac

Ellen Elias-Bursac

Translating is never as easy as substituting one word for another. As those of us who translate or who study translation know, words are powerful vehicles through which culture, history, and identity are revealed or hidden. Ellen Elias-Bursac, in speaking about her new book, Translating Evidence and Interpreting Testimony at a War Crimes Tribunal: Working in a Tug-of-War (Palgrave Macmillan, 2015), addressed some of the intricate challenges she faced as a translator for the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY). Her work for the War Crimes Tribunal in The Hague included translating documents into English and revising earlier translations for accuracy.

Ms. Elias-Bursac asks some crucial questions in the introduction to her book: “How can defendants be tried if they cannot understand the charges against them? How can a witness testify if the judges and attorneys listening to the testimony cannot understand what the witness is saying? Can a judge decide whether to convict or acquit if she or he cannot read the documentary evidence?” Ms. Elias-Bursac’s book attempts to answer these and many other questions related to translation and interpretation.

On Thursday, October 1, Salem State welcomed Ms. Elias-Bursac to its Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies, located at the Enterprise Center in Central Campus. An audience of faculty, staff and Salem community members learned of the crucial importance of translation and interpreting in the lengthy and complex trials heard at The Hague. As in many international courts, English and French are among the working languages required by court personnel. Given the linguistic and cultural intricacies of the cases heard, the ICTY also admits the native language of the accused and the witnesses who are not competent in these working languages. Albanian, Bosnian, Croatian, Serbian and Macedonian, therefore, need to be interpreted and translated.

In addition to the linguistic challenges of interpreting and translating, Ms. Elias-Bursac recounted certain cultural challenges, including the heated debates within the English Translation Unit at The Hague of issues such as the translating of group identity names – What one group calls itself is not necessarily what it wants to be called by outsiders; what does it mean, then, when outsiders consciously choose to use the words not meant for them to use? How is this cultural knowledge conveyed in a translation? Should it be?

We explored the slippery nature of identifying buildings that appear in exhibits of target lists—is the building an infirmary or some physical space where one could take a break and rest? —as well as the equally complex challenge to identify newly elected or appointed heads of regional authorities – is this person a Prime Minister? A President?


Ellen Elias-Bursac has won numerous awards for her translations of novels and non-fiction by Bosnian, Croatian, and Serbian authors. She is a contributing editor to Asymptote journal and has taught at the Harvard Slavic Department, Tufts University, ASU and the New England Friends of Bosnia and Herzegovina. She spent over six years at the ex-Yugoslav War Crimes Tribunal in The Hague as a translator/reviser in the English Translation Unit.

The event was co-sponsored by the WLC Department and the Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies, an academic and educational center advancing the study and teaching of comparative genocide. The center supports academic research and scholarship into genocide, memory and human rights, organizes curriculum teaching workshops for educators, sponsors international study and travel institutes and offers a graduate certificate in Holocaust and genocide studies.

If you are interested in learning to translate, sign up for WLC 300 Introduction to Translation offered Spring 2016 by the WLC, Thursdays 4:30-6:50pm. WLC offers a Certificate in Translation that prepares you to develop the necessary skills to become professional translators. For more information, see the department’s website or call (978) 542-6258 for more information.

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