Interview with Susan Vo – Part 2

By Jonathan Goldberg

Note from the editors: We are taking the unusual step of presenting this interview of interpreter Susan Vo by Jonathan Goldberg in two parts, the first covering her early life and introduction to the interpreting profession, and the second covering her work as an interpreter at the Khmer Rouge Tribunal. Publishing the interview in two parts also resolves the issue of length: as it stands, the text is quite a bit longer than our limits for articles, which we set for online readability.

While the two halves of this long interview reveal Vo’s depth as an interpreter, each can stand alone in its own right. The insights she shares in Part 2 were directly influenced by her early life. Growing up in a culture other than her own, which she knew only secondhand through her parents and other refugees, she came to understand her Vietnamese birth culture more fully by comparison with that of her adopted country (Canada). This might well have given her the perspective that made her capable of an ethical approach to persons who had done great harm: no culture is without its moral outliers.

We see the parallels between Vo’s professional life and the panel discussion about ethics in interpreting conducted by 6 experienced interpreters at the NCTA September 8 General Meeting. The panel was held in response to the impassioned discussion about the role of interpreters in crucial political meetings, sparked by the circumstances surrounding the Putin–Trump summit earlier this year. The Khmer Rouge Tribunal took place after the fact; the Helsinki summit between two world powers has portent for the future. Part 1 of this interview reveals how Vo reached an understanding of differences between cultures; Part 2 brings the past into the present and the future, emphasizing the importance of skill and ethical stance in interpreting.

You can find part 1 here. A French translation of this interview is available on Jonathan Goldberg’s blog, Le mot juste en anglais, here.

Interpreting at the Khmer Rouge Tribunal

In 2009 you were accepted as a United Nations French into English interpreter at the Khmer Rouge trials conducted by the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC).1

Bayon Temple Cambodia

Bayon Temple Cambodia

You were thrown in at the deep end and had to swim for over 5 years. Apart from the unusual situation of cases conducted under both local Cambodian law and international law, the Court adopted three official languages, which meant that the words spoken in Khmer by defendants and Cambodian witnesses and experts were interpreted into English and French, those spoken in English by experts and lawyers were interpreted into French and Khmer, and those spoken in French by experts and lawyers were translated into English and Khmer. You must have felt at times you were working in the Tower of Babel. Was it difficult to cope with languages flowing in all those directions?

No, it felt like second nature. Perhaps that’s from having always lived and worked in multilingual and multicultural settings, I felt quite at home. The medley of all these particular languages was certainly unique because of the different tones, registers, and attitudes that are distinctive to each of those languages. Imagine throwing Russian into the mix, which at one stage was being considered as an official language of the court. If anything, the exposure to this assortment was both a marvel and a challenge. The courtroom was populated by these dominant figures of Cambodian history: Khmer-speaking civil parties who had lived through horrific events; English barristers from the common law tradition known for speaking very extemporaneously; French and francophone lawyers with a civil law background, who could be quite florid in their speech; and American and Dutch lawyers, known for being strident or direct in approach—all thrown together in an adversarial legal system. You can imagine the contrast and blending of all these styles.

Am I correct to assume that at the trial you interpreted a wide range of spoken forms and registers—from the impassioned words of victims to the legalistic language of attorneys and judges?

Absolutely. Depending on who was speaking and what the hearing was about, incoming speech could range from very solemn or harrowing testimony given by a victim, to lengthy and perfunctory exchanges over procedural matters, to monotonous recitation of document numbers, to seminal opening or closing arguments that were months in the making and drew the attention of the entire country and of world media. Our team provided interpreting services in six language combinations. We kept our own booths, most often interpreting into our A-language, except for some of our exceptional Khmer interpreters who worked both into and from French and English. All three languages from the floor were spoken with relatively even distribution.

Depending on what the hearing was about, an interpreter could anticipate when and for whom he or she would be interpreting. But as usual, you always have to expect the unexpected. My first month of arriving at the ECCC coincided with the end of the court’s first trial. Duch’s2 defense lawyer, a very eloquent and famous lawyer, was to present the trial’s much-anticipated final salvo. After weeks of studying the case theory and architecture of their legal arguments, I could have never foreseen what François Roux included in his final plea: it was Kahlil Gibran’s poem called “On Children.” To this day, I have not forgotten the opening verse and ponder why he chose to cite it: “Your children are not your children / They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself. / They come through you but not from you / And though they are with you yet they belong not to you.”

We spoke about juri-linguistic problems—the need for a term or expression to be translated from one language to another while conveying a concept that may be unknown in the target language. Can you give one or two examples?

Working across three languages, cultures, and legal traditions will inevitably present issues of equivalencies. In the Khmer language, and within the hierarchy of the Communist Party of Kampuchea (CPK), honorifics such as Ta and Bong were used, which translate literally into French or English as grandfather and brother, respectively. In Cambodian culture, however, they imply a degree of reverence, and in the CPK context in particular, those titles denote ranking, essential to establishing command superiority. So sometimes the literal translation could be used, but more often than not, the original Khmer was kept in situations where both speakers and audiences grasped the full context of the notion.

There is a doctrine in international criminal law called joint criminal enterprise (JCE), easily rendered in French as entreprise criminelle commune (ECC), but less so in Khmer, and therefore requires the input of Cambodian linguists and legal practitioners to find the nearest match. Then there is the very well-known notion of conviction intime, a term drawn from French criminal procedure and widely used in popular culture. It refers to the discretion of a finder of fact to circumvent formal rules of procedure and rely on a profoundly personal conviction in light of the weight of evidence presented. As far as I know, there is no equivalent in Anglo-American jurisprudence. To say intimate conviction sounds rather awkward, so one hopes that there is enough lag to paraphrase or that the an audience who is familiar with this very Gallic legal concept.

It is a given that interpreters play a pivotal role in bridging the language gap in any setting. I assume this is particularly so when perpetrators of crimes are on trial. Could you expand on this with reference to the Khmer Rouge trials?

With reference to the Khmer Rouge trials, or any large trial dealing with mass atrocities as in the cases of Rwanda, Sierra Leone, or the former Yugoslavia, the role of interpreters is first and foremost to provide the most complete and accurate translation of what is being said during proceedings. You are there to serve all parties equally and objectively. What stands out in particular is that both listeners and speakers are completely beholden to the words of the interpreter, attentive to everything that is uttered or not uttered. Those interpreted words are relied upon to shape a line of questioning, a cross examination, and ultimately, the presentation and weighing of evidence that will lead to an acquittal or a conviction. There is little, if any, room for error. The integrity of your work has real consequences. Nazi defendant Hermann Goering famously stated during the Nuremberg trials, “Of course I want counsel. But it is even more important to have a good interpreter.”

When you listened to descriptions of horrific conduct and heinous crimes conducted against so many Cambodians, causing the death of about one-quarter of the population, you probably had no time in the thrust of your interpreting to meditate on the “banality of evil.” But when you did take pause to assess the defendants’ unimaginable acts of cruelty, were you able to glean any spark of humanity in them, nevertheless? Were you able to accept to any degree that they saw their acts as a means of achieving a set of positive social aims in which they believed? Did you accept any arguments that the defendants found themselves in circumstances in which many of us would have behaved as they did? Where do you draw the line between understanding people’s motives and excusing them?

Living and working in the country where these crimes occurred, one never escapes the physical and psychological consequences of war and destruction. Even 40 years on, because in Cambodia an entire generation was wiped out, families were forever scarred, and functioning institutions take a long, long, long time to build. I didn’t need to hear accounts to convince me of the toll of the genocide; there are reminders and remnants of it confronting you every single day. War is mad and it is senseless. It is to the court’s credit that the trials are held in Cambodia so that whatever degree of justice can be achieved, it will be delivered directly to the people, as hopeful as that sounds.

In the throes of interpreting, I did not really contemplate the “banality of evil,” because I was just focusing on the job of interpreting, even though the significance of the event was never lost on me. Reflecting on the same questions, this is what Hannah Arendt3 talks about in her search to understand how a man (Adolf Eichmann) could commit inhumane and atrocious acts without remorse or guilt, and it is partially because they are doing their job mechanically, following orders, or doing what was needed to survive.

As to seeing any spark of humanity in the defendants? Well, yes. In the sense that sitting on the bench of the accused were a set of very elderly people, indicted for heinous crimes many years before and now afforded the chance to speak to those accusations. This is the rule of law. There has been a terrible litany of mass atrocities throughout the twentieth century, and in each tragedy, humans were the ones committing monstrous acts, not monsters. So the more relevant question to ask is what is it that pushes humans to abide so consciously by a set of beliefs to a point where they are willing to sacrifice their own past, present, and future? I don’t know the answer, but I do believe that you have to hear all sides. You always have to attempt to understand the other perspective, as difficult and painful it is, if the goal is to achieve not only justice, but some form of reconciliation.

Going forward

What are your career plans?

After living and working on three continents, it’s been wonderful to be back in Calgary, Canada, from where I freelance, travel, and organize language and interpreting services for clients across the country and abroad. The freedom and ease with which I can grow my business speaks to the quality of life here, how active our government and private sectors are, and the wonderful connections I’ve made throughout the years. Interpreting remains as relevant as ever now. I think our profession is on the cusp of exciting changes that will only increase its relevance. Just as Colonel Léon Dostert revolutionized interpreting procedures during the Nuremberg trials in the late 1940s by developing microphones, headsets, and booths to allow interpreters to convey the spoken word in a combination of languages by moving from consecutive mode into simultaneous mode, today’s technologies like remote delivery, cloud connectivity, and artificial intelligence will alter our current landscape. I want to make sure the heart of our profession is preserved. People will always feel most at ease and effective when they are able to speak in their own languages. I am exploring the power of these technologies, along with new and different roles within the UN and multilateral organizations where I know how to ensure that these types of exchanges will be created and managed as seamlessly as possible.


1. See this video, narrated by Vo, introducing the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia.

2. Duch was the pseudonym of Kaing Guek Eav or Kang Keg Iew, a Khmer Rouge leader who oversaw the Tuol Sleng prison camp.

3. 3. In her book Eichmann in Jerusalem, published in 1963.