Language lessons: issues of translation in the Khmer Rouge Tribunal

14 April 2023
The UN-backed tribunal in Cambodia leaves a complex legacy
Supported by a SSEAC grant, Sydney Law School academics will examine issues of translation and interpretation in Cambodia’s Khmer Rouge Tribunal.

After 16 years in operation, the United Nations-backed Khmer Rouge Tribunal handed down its final verdict in September last year. Formally known as the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia, the tribunal’s remit was to prosecute Khmer Rouge senior leaders and those “most responsible” for serious crimes, including war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide, committed in Cambodia during the Khmer Rouge’s brutal reign from 1975-79.

The tribunal completed three trials and convicted three senior Khmer Rouge figures. Its final judicial decision was to uphold the conviction of 91-year-old former head-of-state Khieu Samphan on charges of genocide against the Vietnamese ethnic group, as well as war crimes and crimes against humanity relating to killings, torture, forced labour, forced marriage, and sexual violence.

But while the tribunal’s hearings have now concluded, its complex legacy will be a source of inquiry and debate for decades to come.

University of Sydney Law School academics, Dr Rosemary Grey and Dr Rachel Killean, have each pursued varied but overlapping research into the tribunal’s work and its impact on Cambodian politics and society. In 2023, with SSEAC seed funding, they are launching a new research project that will focus on challenges of interpretation and translation arising in the tribunal, which works across the Khmer, English and French languages.

The project will identify Khmer terms that have been difficult to translate into English and French and vice-versa; examine how translation challenges have been addressed; and assess how translators and interpreters have affected the tribunal’s capacity to assess evidence and communicate effectively with the public.

A room inside the Khmer Rouge-era S-21 interrogation and detention centre in Phnom Penh, which is now a museum (Adobe Images).


The project, ‘Translating Atrocity: Bridging language barriers in Cambodia’s war crimes tribunal’, will draw on interviews with translators and interpreters who worked at the court. It will seek to establish what lessons around translation and interpretation may be learned, with potential value for the functioning of other international tribunals, such as the permanent International Criminal Court.

“In a multi-lingual courtroom, there is so much to be lost (and gained) in translation,” said Dr Grey.

“The closure of Cambodia’s war crimes tribunal – which managed the dizzying feat of working across three languages – offers an opportunity to examine how these translation issues play out in large and complex trials for war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide.”

Dr Grey and Dr Killean have identified translation challenges in their previous research, including the English words ‘genocide’ and ‘human dignity’ and the Khmer term phed ti bey (‘third sex’ or ‘queer’). Both academics bring extensive research experience in international criminal law, transitional justice and the Cambodia context.

Working with Khmer-speakers and tribunal translators on this project will deepen current understandings of how meaning is shared in Cambodia’s history-making genocide trials.
Dr Rosemary Grey

Dr Grey, who is co-director of the Sydney Centre for International Law, secured a Discovery Early Career Researcher Award (DECRA) in 2021 to critically examine the international community’s response to forced pregnancy and other crimes that violate reproductive rights, through a case study of the Khmer Rouge Tribunal. Dr Killean is a principal investigator on the project, Locating ‘Human Dignity’ in Cambodia, which explores how the concept of ‘human dignity’ is used in Cambodian law, policy and advocacy, and how it is understood by Cambodians from diverse backgrounds and disciplines.

Alongside the use of interviews, ‘Translating Atrocity’ will involve analysis of witness testimonies to understand how particular terms or concepts were translated, and what concepts, phrases, metaphors or idioms posed particular translation challenges. It will begin with a relatively small data set, with a view to seeking funding for an expanded project in future.

The project will contribute to a relatively limited body of scholarship examining the role of translation and interpretation in international criminal justice, none of which have focused on the Cambodian tribunal to date. Having completed its trials, the court now has three years to wind-down its residual activities, including disseminating information to the public on its work.

“Working with Khmer-speakers and tribunal translators on this project will deepen current understandings of how meaning is shared in Cambodia’s history-making genocide trials,” Dr Grey said.