Book Review: The Discourse of Court Interpreting

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at
Sun May 1 16:01:42 UTC 2005

Forwarded from Linguist-List:

AUTHOR: Hale, Sandra Beatriz
TITLE: The Discourse of Court Interpreting
SUTITLE: Discourse practices of the law, the witness and the interpreter
PUBLISHER: John Benjamins Publishing Company
YEAR: 2004
Announced at

Revied by: Philipp Sebastian Angermeyer, Department of Linguistics, New
York University


Following the ground-breaking work of Berk-Seligson (1990) on
Spanish-English interpreting in U.S. courts, studies on multilingualism in
the courtroom have proliferated in recent years, describing practices in a
variety of different countries, including among others Austria (Kadric
2001), Belgium (D'Hondt et al. 2004), Britain (Morris 1993), Denmark
(Jacobsen 2002), and South Africa (Moeketsi 1999).  Investigating
Spanish-English interpreting in Australian courts, Sandra Hale has been a
major contributor to this growing body of research.  Her new book presents
a culmination of her research, having arisen out of her doctoral thesis
and incorporating several previous publications in its chapters (Hale
1999, 2002a, 2002b).


Based on data from seventeen Local Court hearings in New South Wales,
Australia, Hale investigates the language use of English- speaking
attorneys and Spanish-speaking witnesses and the ways in which translation
by court interpreters affects the communication between them. The book is
divided into eight chapters. In chapter 1, Hale introduces the topic of
court interpreting by presenting brief discussions of previous research
regarding two important points of debate, namely the definition of
translation accuracy and the question of the interpreter's role.

Chapter 2 presents a historical overview of court interpreting in
Australia, from the first establishment of interpreter services in the
1950's to conditions found today. Hale reviews various government reports
and traces the developments of interpreter training and of certification
criteria. In particular, she is critical of the National Accreditation
Authority for Translators and Interpreters for its policy of accrediting
interpreters based on tests only, rather than requiring them to undergo
professional training also. As a consequence of such policies, she
considers the level of court interpreting services in Australia to be

Chapters 3 and 4 discuss the language use of lawyers and its translation
by interpreters, chapter 3 dealing with questions and chapter 4 with
discourse markers. Pointing out the importance of questioning in the
Common Law system, Hale distinguishes between several question types based
on their syntactic form and pragmatic force. Quantifying the observed
questions, she finds differences in the distribution of question types
based on whether a lawyer is questioning a witness for the own side
("examination-in-chief") or for the opposing side ("cross-examination").
She finds that open-ended, information-seeking questions such as
wh-questions are more common during examination-in-chief. By contrast,
more coercive, confirmation-seeking questions are more frequent in cross-
examination, in particular declarative statements that are pragmatically
question-like (e.g. "I put it to you that ..."). In translating these
questions, court interpreters are found to sometimes change the question
type and thus alter the pragmatic force. For example, interpreters may
render declaratives as interrogatives, which Hale claims has the effect of
making cross-examination appear less coercive in translation. She argues
further that these differences between English and Spanish versions are
due in part to translation difficulties, as certain types of English
tag-questions have no pragmatic equivalent in Spanish.

Chapter 4 continues the examination of the speech of lawyers and its
rendition by interpreters by investigating the treatment of three
discourse markers, namely well, now, and (you) see. Hale finds that
lawyers use well and see to preface questions during cross- examination,
while now is used primarily during examination-in-chief.  However,
interpreters are found to omit these discourse markers "almost
systematically" when they translate the lawyers' questions into Spanish
(p. 62). Hale attributes these omissions to a presumed disregard for the
importance of discourse markers, as well as to a lack of pragmatic
equivalence to available Spanish discourse markers.

In chapter 5, Hale describes the speech style of witnesses and the way in
which it is altered by the interpreters' renditions. In doing so she
builds on research on the importance of speech styles for the evaluation
of witnesses in the courtroom (Berk-Seligson 1990, O'Barr 1982, Wodak
1980), in particular the distinction between "powerful"  and "powerless"
speech styles made by O'Barr and his associates (e.g. O'Barr and Atkins
1980, O'Barr 1982). Hale takes "powerless"  speech style to be indicated
by a variety of features, including repetitions, hesitations,
fillers/hedges, pauses, backtracking, grammatical errors, and discourse
markers, and she quantifies the presence of these features in both the
witnesses' testimonies and the interpreters' renditions of them. When
translating the testimony of witnesses into English, interpreters are
found to omit many of these features, in particular repetitions, pauses,
hedges, and discourse markers. At the same time, interpreters may
introduce their own hesitations, repetitions or hedges, often resulting
from processing difficulties in interpreting. While these added features
of powerless speech may be taken to reflect negatively on the witness,
Hale's quantitative analysis shows that the average number of powerless
features in the speech of interpreters does not exceed that found in the
speech of Spanish-speaking witnesses.

Chapter 5 also includes an analysis of several narratives by witnesses
whose speech style Hale characterizes as "rule-oriented"  or
"relationship-oriented" following Conley and O'Barr (1990). Hale finds
that interpreters do not alter the style of testimony in this respect.
However, her analysis differs from Conley and O'Barr's by implying that
the distinction between rule-orientation and relationship- orientation is
a question of speech style (e.g. whether a question is answered "directly"
or not), rather than of witnesses' attitudes towards the law. Conley and
O'Barr (1990: 80-1) note "a convergence of the tendencies toward the
powerless speech style and the relational orientation, and a complementary
convergence of rule-orientation and the absence of powerless stylistic
features," but unlike Hale, they don't view the orientations themselves as
stylistic features.

In addition, chapter 5 contains the results of matched guise experiments,
some evaluated by Spanish-English bilinguals, others by English-speaking
law students. Both groups rated "powerful" speech more highly than
"powerless" speech. Bilingual evaluators showed significant differences in
their ratings of original witness testimony and corresponding renditions
by interpreters. English-speaking evaluators showed differences in their
ratings of stylistically different interpreter renditions of the same
source text. Where the target text replicated "powerless" features from
the source text, both source and target received parallel ratings. The
findings thus support Hale's claim that interpreters' changes in speech
style alter testimony in meaningful ways.

Chapter 6 addresses the issue of discursive power and control in the
courtroom, investigating how attorneys use questions in order to elicit
desired responses from witnesses. Hale shows that interpreters affect the
control of attorneys in two ways. They may diminish it by translating
questions in ways that alters their pragmatic force (compare the
discussion of chapter 3), but they may also help attorneys maintain
control by omitting challenging or otherwise "inappropriate" elements from
the translation of a witness's response. Hale measures the attorneys' loss
of courtroom control by analyzing a variety of discursive features, which
are discussed and illustrated in detail throughout the chapter. Among them
is the tendency to sometimes refer to a witness in the third person, thus
addressing the interpreter rather than the witness him- or herself.
However, this feature could also be viewed as one that enables attorneys
to maintain control, as it demonstrates that they have the power to
relegate non-English-speaking witnesses to the status of non-participants,
by speaking about them rather than to them.

Chapter 7 deals with the attitudes of interpreters, based on responses to
a questionnaire administered by the author. The analysis is based on 11
responses from Spanish-English court interpreters working in Australia. As
the survey was conducted several years after the fieldwork, the
respondents are not the same interpreters as those who were recorded. In
addition, Hale points out that the respondents are not representative of
court interpreters in general, because the majority of them has had
university-level interpreter training, and many were in fact taught be
Hale herself. The respondents answered questions about interpreting and
about the legal system, and they provided written translations of
attorneys' questions and witnesses' answers. In their written translations
the respondents acted differently from the interpreters studied in that
they translated discourse markers and tag-questions to a greater degree.
However, they still omitted many of the features of powerless speech
included in the written versions of witnesses' answers.

Finally, chapter 8 summarizes the findings and presents a conclusion that
addresses the role of the court interpreter and recommends best practices
for the profession. Most importantly, she argues against the belief that
translating is inherently inaccurate, claiming that "accuracy can be
achievable in the courtroom context through a pragmatic reconstruction of
the message. Accuracy is defined as portraying the intention of the
original message in the target language, with the same illocutionary
force, so that the listener of the interpreted message can perceive the
message and its author in as similar a way as a listener of the source
language would. .... [This] requires faithfulness of content and manner of
speech." [p. 239]. Consequently, Hale argues that court interpreters
should provide translations that accurately portray the speech style of
the source speaker. As the court interpreters in her study don't do this,
she proposes that interpreter training needs to be improved to include
training in stylistic accuracy.


The research reported in this book provides an important contribution to
the study of court interpreting by investigating in detail the ways in
which the interpreters' renditions may alter the pragmatic force of
questions and answers in the courtroom. However, some aspects of
methodology and presentation warrant criticism, as does Hale's central
argument for "stylistic equivalence" in translation. Also, the book does
not always appear like a coherent whole, perhaps because several chapters
(3, 4, and 5) correspond to separate publications.  Cross-references
between chapters are rather rare and are at times erroneous (e.g. chapter
3 is twice referred to as chapter 2; see pages 176 and 209).

The book contains numerous excerpts of transcripts that provide a wealth
of data for future comparative analyses. These are presented in an unusual
table format that effectively juxtaposes source and target segments, but
does not indicate overlapping speech, pause length, or prosodic features.
As transcripts are never theory-neutral (cf. Bucholtz 2000, Edwards 2001),
a discussion of the motivations for choosing this particular transcription
format would have been in order, especially given the author's emphasis on
speech style. Instead, Hale states that "no particular transcription
convention was followed" (p.37).

The analysis is also weakened by an over-reliance on quantitative claims
based on the calculation of frequencies. For example in her report on the
results of a survey of eleven interpreters, she consistently uses
percentages where stating the number of respondents would have been more
useful (i.e. she repeatedly refers to "nine percent" of respondents when
she is in fact talking about one single person). Throughout the book, an
abundance of detailed tables makes it difficult to identify which findings
are truly significant.  Moreover, the quantitative claims are not always
convincing, because no measurements of statistical significance are
employed. For example, on page 55, a difference of four percentage points
between English source and Spanish target in the frequency of statements
in examination-in-chief is described as significant without a statistical
test having been conducted.

The survey presented in chapter 7 seems rather limited in its usefulness,
given that it was taken by only 11 respondents (by comparison, Angelelli
(2001) surveyed 293 interpreters, and Kadric (2001) asked 111 judges about
their experiences with court interpreting). To increase these numbers, it
could have been useful to include interpreters for languages other than
Spanish. Alternatively, a qualitative rather than quantitative
presentation of the results would have been preferable. For example, it
would have been interesting to read individual responses to the question
"what does accuracy of interpretation mean to you as an interpreter?" (p.
214). Instead, the answers have been coded to permit quantitative
statements, such as the following: "the majority of university graduates
... most of whom were taught by the author of this book, had the view
about accuracy that this book proposes." Given the participation of Hale's
former students, the survey appears at times more like an exam, especially
given the translation exercises that were part of it. Likewise, the
presentation of the results is reminiscent of an explanation of grading
criteria, for example when she remarks that 18% of respondents to a
particular question demonstrated "an inability to express a logical
reason" (page 214).

Also, claims made by the author (and the publisher?) about the
generalizability of the study are exaggerated. While it is claimed that
the "results can be extended to any language combination" (see back cover)
and to interpreting contexts "in the rest of the world" (p. xvi), these
claims are not backed up by evidence provided in the book. On the
contrary, Hale's discussion of the difficulty of translating English
tag-questions into Spanish (chapter 3) suggests that certain pragmatic
aspects of interpreting may be highly language-specific. Likewise, the
importance of questioning types and of attorney control is arguably more
pronounced in the Common Law system than in other legal settings.
Moreover, such claims fail to situate the interpreting event in the
context of the sociolinguistic relationship between the respective
linguistic communities that are in contact. They also ignore typological
differences between languages, such as for example the absence or presence
of a T/V-distinction, gender-marking, or evidentials, all characteristics
that can be expected to have an impact on the ways in which the
interpreter renders one person's speech and addresses another.

Finally, Hale's central proposal about "accuracy of speech style" in
translation deserves to be addressed in detail, as it invites a discussion
about the role of court interpreting and about the implications of
linguistic research for the professional practice of interpreters. Hale's
research provides further evidence for the claim that speech style is an
important factor in the evaluation of witnesses, and from these findings
she draws the conclusion that court interpreters should strive to
replicate the speech style of the source speaker. "Ideally, the
interpreter should perform like an actor ... In this way the interpreter
would take on different roles with their accompanying linguistic
characteristics: style, accent, register, grammatical errors and other
features" (p. 130). Recent work by Queen (2004) on film dubbing,
specifically on the translation of African American English into German,
demonstrates the difficulties involved in translating stylistic and
dialectal variation. More importantly, the evaluation of speech styles
depends on stereotypes and language ideology, particularly the evaluation
of non-native and non-standard varieties. Thus it is a discriminatory
practice (cf. Lippi-Green 1997).  The fact that individuals with a
"powerless" speech style tend to be perceived as less credible or less
intelligent than individuals with a "powerful" speech style does not mean
that this is a true reflection of their credibility or intelligence that
deserves to be entered into evidence. Consequently, it may help
interpreters to be aware of these practices, but they should not actively
support them by enacting stereotypical speech styles.

At best, this kind of stylistic accuracy requires an unrealistic degree of
sociolinguistic knowledge from interpreters (e.g. in detecting
hypercorrect speech in one language and replicating it in another). At
worst, it invites interpreters to indulge in their own linguistic
stereotyping and to openly cater to the presumed stereotypes of others,
i.e. those of judges or jury members. In fact, some such stereotypes are
found in the book itself. For example, Hale suggests that, in aiming for
stylistic accuracy, interpreters should compensate for errors in the
speech of witnesses by making intentional errors in their translation.
However, her definition of errors (pp. 124-136)  betrays a prescriptivist
language ideology, as some of the features that she classifies as errors
can be attributed to features of non- standard varieties of Spanish (e.g.
dequesmo) or to language contact. The remaining cases are idiosyncratic
examples that may be performance errors, perhaps resulting from
hypercorrection by witnesses who are nervously attempting to use a formal
register in court.

As a court interpreter and teacher of interpreters, Hale is understandably
concerned with improving interpreting services, with the ultimate goal of
achieving a higher standard of justice for witnesses who do not speak the
language of the court. This goal is commendable, and it has been shared by
other researchers on court interpreting and community interpreting in
general, who have identified a number of problem sources that professional
interpreters can be taught to avoid. However, research on dialogue
interpreting has also shown that interpreter-mediated discourse is
fundamentally different from monolingual discourse, because it alters the
turn-taking structure of the interaction (cf. Davidson 2000, 2002, Roy
2000, Wadensj 1998). For example, consecutive interpreting leads to a
fragmentation of discourse, e.g. interruptions in the flow of narratives.
Nevertheless, Hale appears to believe (in line with legal opinions on
court interpreting) that a well-trained interpreter is capable of placing
a non- English speaker in the same position that an English-speaker would
be in. But after an initial phase of surveying and improving court
interpreting practices, time has perhaps come for linguists working in the
field to recognize that there are limits to what court interpreting can
achieve. As Bourdieu (1991) has pointed out, the legal system and the
state that it supports are inherently unjust by privileging speakers of a
particular linguistic variety that is elevated to official status. As a
consequence, no amount of interpreter training can produce true equality
for individuals who do not speak this variety.  Forensic linguists would
be better served to investigate the pragmatic consequences of these
inequalities instead of assisting the legal system in placing all
responsibility on the interpreter.


Angelelli, Claudia. 2001. Deconstructing the invisible interpreter: A
study of the interpersonal role of the interpreter in a cross-
linguistic/cultural communicative event, Stanford University: Ph.D.

Berk-Seligson, Susan. 1990. The Bilingual Courtroom: Court
Interpreters in the Judicial Process. Chicago: University of Chicago

Bourdieu, Pierre. 1991. Language and symbolic power. Cambridge,
Mass: Harvard University Press.

Bucholtz, Mary. 2000. The politics of transcription. Journal of
Pragmatics 32:1439-1465.

Conley, John M., and O'Barr, William M. 1990. Rules versus
Relationships: The Ethnography of Legal Discourse. Chicago:
University of Chicago Press.

D'Hondt, Sigurd, Beyens, Kristel, Machiels, Bieke, Meeuwis, Michael,
Blommaert, Jan, and Verschueren, Jef. 2004. Interculturele
communicatie in rechtbanken. Brussels: Politeia.

Davidson, Brad. 2000. The interpreter as institutional gatekeeper: The
social-linguistic role of interpreters in Spanish-English medical
discourse. Journal of Sociolinguistics 4:379-405.

Davidson, Brad. 2002. A model of the construction of conversational
common ground in interpreted discourse. Journal of Pragmatics

Edwards, Jane A. 2001. The transcription of discourse. In The
Handbook of Discourse Analysis, eds. Deborah Schiffrin, Deborah
Tannen and Heidi E. Hamilton, 321-348. Malden Ma.: Blackwell.

Hale, Sandra. 1999. Interpreters' Treatment of Discourse Markers in
Courtroom Questions. Forensic Linguistics 6:57-82.

Hale, Sandra. 2002a. How faithfully do court interpreters render the
style of non-English speaking witnesses' testimonies? A data-based
study of Spanish-English bilingual proceedings. Discourse Studies

Hale, Sandra. 2002b. How are courtroom questions interpreted? An
analysis of Spanish interpreters' practices. In Triadic exchanges.
Studies in dialogue interpreting., ed. Ian Mason, 21-50. Manchester:

Jacobsen, Bente. 2002. Pragmatic meaning in court interpreting: an
empirical study of additions in consecutively interpreted question-
answer dialogues, Department of English, Aarhus School of Business:
Ph. Dissertation.

Kadric, Mira. 2001. Dolmetschen bei Gericht: Erwartungen,
Anforderungen, Kompetenzen. Vienna: WUV, Universittsverlag.

Lippi-Green, Rosina. 1997. English with an Accent: Language,
Ideology, and Discrimination in the United States. London: Routledge.

Moeketsi, Rosemary. 1999. Discourse in a multilingual and
multicultural courtroom: a court interpreter's guide. Hatfield, Pretoria:
J.L. van Schaik.

Morris, Ruth. 1993. Images of the Interpreter: Studies of Language-
Switching in the Legal Process, Lancaster University: Ph.D.

O'Barr, William M., and Atkins, Bowman K. 1980. "Women's language"
or "powerless language"? In Women and Language in Literature and
Society, eds. Sally Mc-Connell-Ginet, Ruth Borker and Nelly Furman,
93-110. New York: Praeger.

O'Barr, William M. 1982. Linguistic Evidence: Language, Power, and
Strategy in the Courtroom. New York: Academic Press.

Queen, Robin. 2004. 'Du hast jar keene Ahnung': African American
English dubbed into German. Journal of Sociolinguistics 8:515-537.

Roy, Cynthia. 2000. Interpreting as a discourse process. New York:
Oxford University Press.

Wadensj, Cecilia. 1998. Interpreting as Interaction. London/New
York: Longman.

Wodak, Ruth. 1980. Discourse analysis and courtroom interaction.
Discourse Processes 3:369-380.


Philipp Sebastian Angermeyer is a Ph.D. candidate in linguistics at
New York University. He is currently finishing his dissertation
entitled "'Speak English or what?' Codeswitching and interpreter use
in New York Small Claims Court."

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