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LINGUIST List 25.658

Fri Feb 07 2014

Review: Discourse Analysis; Forensic Ling; Translation: de Jongh (2012)

Editor for this issue: Monica Macaulay <monicalinguistlist.org>

Date: 18-Oct-2013
From: Yuri Yerastov <yerastovucalgary.ca>
Subject: From the Classroom to the Courtroom
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Book announced at http://linguistlist.org/issues/23/23-1726.html

AUTHOR: Elena M. de Jongh
TITLE: From the Classroom to the Courtroom
SUBTITLE: A guide to interpreting in the U.S. justice system
SERIES TITLE: American Translators Association Scholarly Monograph Series XVII
PUBLISHER: John Benjamins
YEAR: 2012

REVIEWER: Yuri Yerastov, Kutztown University


“From the Classroom to the Courtroom: A guide to interpreting in the US justice system,” by Elena M. de Jongh, is an easy-to-read comprehensive introductory level text with a focus on the English-Spanish language combination. The book is a reasonable investment for both novice autodidacts and seasoned professionals in the field of court interpretation.


This book is divided into three parts: “In the Classroom: Background and context”; “In the Courtroom: Interpreting practice”; and “Appendices.” The references section at the end is augmented with a list of legal case citations and an index of terms, organizations, and individuals.

In the Introduction to Part I, de Jongh situates the profession of the court interpreter in the context of general interpreting. She overviews legal activities that an interpreter may be involved in, while focusing on court interpretation and the English-Spanish language combination. Readers learn that a court interpreter is expected to work in three modes -- consecutive and simultaneous interpretation, and sight translation -- as well as have knowledge of court proceedings, professional ethics, and legal terminology and concepts. Right from the very beginning de Jongh presupposes some degree of ability in interpretation, and minimal or no prior knowledge of the US legal system.

In Chapter 1, the author reviews precedents and legislative provisions pertinent to the functions of an interpreter in the court system, particularly stressing the necessity of interpreters in guaranteeing due process to minorities. Statistical evidence is amply used to demonstrate the need for court interpreters in general, and interpreters of Spanish in particular. The author briefly discusses cases that establish the right to an interpreter (“Negron v. State of New York”; “US ex rel. Navarrow v. Johnson”) and the legal concept of linguistic presence (“State v. Natividad”).

De Jongh presents the Court Interpreters Act (1978) as a logical and necessary consequence flowing from prior case law, and focuses on the provisions of the Act that require use of certified court interpreters and national certification of court interpreters at the federal level. A number of cases following the Act are discussed to pinpoint persistent miscarriages of justice (“State of Oregon v. Ventura Morales”; “State v. Santiago Calderon”), the mandatory nature of the Act (''US vs. Gonzales”), and the lack of equivalence between bilingual fluency and interpreting ability (“US v. Bailon-Santana”). However, interpreter certification in the US is not universal; rather it is a patchwork of various proficiency tests. As an example of the latter, we learn that at the federal level the Administrative Office of the US Courts offers certification exams in Haitian Creole, Navajo, and Spanish, as well as maintains a database of otherwise qualified interpreters.

The author situates the three modes of interpretation (simultaneous and consecutive interpreting, and sight translation) in the context of the US legal system. Emphasis is put on the demanding nature of the legal profession, and statistics and findings from empirical research are given to illustrate the challenges that a court interpreter faces. Chapter 1 ends by discussing the skillset necessary for competent interpretation; in this context, de Jongh’s reference to Berk-Seligson’s (2002) finding is insightful: an interpreter’s hedging may negatively reflect on original testimony.

In Chapter 2, “Overview of the courts: The US judicial system”, de Jongh provides an appropriately succinct summary of the US court system, while highlighting points relevant for prospective interpreters. The overview introduces readers to judicial structures both at the state and federal levels, summarizing jurisdictional division and overlap. Particularly noteworthy is an explanation that immigration falls under federal jurisdiction.

De Jongh creates an awareness of the multiple tiers of the judicial system both at the federal and state levels. She introduces basic concepts such as the trial court / court of original jurisdiction, the appeals court, and the court of last resort; stress is appropriately laid on the fact that an appeals court hears matters of procedure only. De Jongh situates the courts in the system of government, while explaining the doctrine of the separation of powers and emphasizing the role of judicial review.

The chapter contains valuable introductory material that a non-specialist audience would find useful. De Jongh distinguishes criminal from civil law, disambiguates the two main uses of the collocation “civil law”, and explains the relationship between investigation and prosecution at the federal level.

Particularly valuable is de Jongh’s short discussion of civil vs. common law, which is adequately supplemented by exercise material at the end of the chapter. This discussion is particularly valuable for prospective interpreters who may have immigrated to the US from a civil law country and have thus been exposed to other principles of justice organization.

In Chapter 3, “Pretrial proceedings”, de Jongh defines criminal and civil actions and briefly discusses the possibility of their overlap. She clarifies terminological confusion when she reviews synonyms related to civil litigation: “acts”, “suit”, and “litigation”; “defendant” and “respondent”; “plaintiff” and “petitioner”; “complaint” and “petition”; “answer” and “counterclaim”. Of further help to prospective interpreters is clarification of terms such as “jurisdiction”, “venue”, “statute”, and “motion”. The author emphasizes the adversarial nature of the US justice system. She explains that in the civil justice system the adversaries are typically private individuals whereas in the criminal justice system one of the adversaries is always the government that initiates prosecution. The author provides helpful charts of the civil and criminal process, particularly valuable for a non-specialist.

The bulk of the chapter is devoted to criminal procedure. In presenting the material de Jongh follows the chronology of the judicial process: discovery, preliminary hearing, grand jury proceedings and arraignment. In accordance with chronological organization, de Jongh further partitions the discovery stage of the judicial process into: deposition, interrogatories, pretrial conferences, mediation. Such chronological arrangement is iconic and serves to reinforce the cohesiveness of the text.

From the pretrial stage on, the chapter focuses on criminal procedure. De Jongh explains the role of arrest in pre-trial procedures and reviews the grounds for making an arrest. She clarifies the function and content of charging documents such as information filed by the prosecutor, a complaint to the judge, a warrant issued by the judge or magistrate, and an indictment by the grand jury.

A series of interpreting exercises offer convenient opportunities to apply theoretical knowledge about charging and supporting documents. Prospective interpreters are encouraged to record their interpreting of an arrest warrant in a trafficking / kidnapping case; of criminal complaints involving entry on a forged passport, credit card fraud, and employment of illegal aliens; and of an indictment in a passport fraud case. Recorded exercises are to be evaluated based on accuracy, comprehensibility, completeness, delivery, adequacy, and cohesiveness; an evaluation instrument is conveniently provided on ready-made forms.

As de Jongh describes initial appearance, the next stage of the criminal process, she introduces a sample interpreter’s oath and gives a set of valuable tips; for example, readers are to expect the judge to read the defendant’s constitutional rights first. Such tips allow prospective interpreters to prime themselves for appropriate lexis.

The subsequent stages of the criminal process presented by de Jongh are preliminary hearing, grand jury proceedings, arraignment, and change of plea hearings. Documents that arise from these stages (indictment, plea, pretrial motion) are paid equal attention in the author’s exposition. Legal process and documentation are balanced in the interpreting exercises; we find both process exercises (arraignment, change of plea hearing) and documentation exercises (written plea agreement, factual proffers). Also balanced are opportunities to practice the three modes: consecutive and simultaneous interpreting, and sight translation.

In Chapter 4, “Trials”, de Jongh describes criminal trials in rich procedural detail. The exposition is accompanied by a reader-friendly diagram, which dovetails with the pretrial diagram in the previous chapter. The author explains the possibility of fact-finding by a judge in petty offences, an explanation that is useful for readers with no technical background in law. Most of the chapter, though, is devoted to the jury trial. De Jongh alerts prospective court interpreters to expect simultaneous interpretation during jury selection, case summary by the judge, and jury instructions. As before, enlightening authentic materials (case summary, questions asked of prospective jurors) are provided as illustrations. The author offers another helpful distinction for a non-technical audience -- the distinction between two putative standards of proof: preponderance of evidence and reasonable doubt. An accompanying sample document clarifies the concept of the burden of proof.

Then de Jongh turns her attention to opening and closing statements, and witness testimony. Readers are reminded that the Fifth Amendment’s right against self-incrimination applies at trials and that evidence may be either physical or testimonial. We are introduced to accompanying legal jargon such as “exhibits”, “moving something into evidence”, “overruling and sustaining objections”, “direct and cross-examination”, “redirect”, and “re-cross”. Prospective interpreters are made aware that they will be expected to interpret simultaneously during opening statements and witness testimony. They further learn about an important procedural convention: interpreters will interpret an attorney’s objection only in the courtroom, but not in the judge’s chambers. Finally prospective interpreters learn that expert witnesses, unlike regular ones, are allowed to offer opinions and conclusions. De Jongh’s selection of conventions of criminal procedure is appropriate; knowledge of these facts creates structural expectations and allows for lexical priming. Also appropriate is De Jongh’s selection of sample training documents such as opening and closing statements, examinations of English-speaking, non-English speaking, and expert witnesses, and a motion for acquittal.

In chapter 5, “Sentences and post-trial proceedings”, the reader learns that the judge decides on a sentence in conformance with sentencing guidelines, such as the Sentencing Commission guidelines. We further learn that the decision of the judge is informed by the presentence report prepared by the probation officer. Prospective interpreters are alerted to the possibility that their services might be needed to translate this confidential report and cautioned against expressing opinions other than linguistic ones.

A step-by-step sentencing procedure is reviewed and an array of useful accompanying terms is introduced, such as “defendant’s right to allocution”, “term of imprisonment”, “supervised release”, and “restitution”. Prospective interpreters are advised that they will be expected to interpret defendant's allocution and his family members’ / friends’ statements, as well as dialog between defendant and court in consecutive mode, while everything else will be in simultaneous mode. Sample allocutions and a sample judgment read by the judge illustrate legal usage.

Finally, de Jongh explains to prospective interpreters the appeals stage of post-trial proceedings. She emphasizes that appeals by the prosecution are not allowed due to the doctrine of double jeopardy. It is helpful that the author disambiguates issues of fact and those of law, and stresses that appeals normally deal with interpretation of law rather than fact-finding, which is why interpreters are not needed at this stage of the criminal process. The author briefly discusses the possibility of a lower court’s decision reversal and the case being remanded for another trial or resentencing.

In the conclusion de Jongh impresses on prospective interpreters the importance of professional development and suggests a number of strategies to stay current in the field of legal interpreting.

The materials listed in the Appendix show the author’s balanced judgment; they include an impressive catalog of lexicographic resources, a list of professional organizations, interpreters’ codes of ethics, as well as legal sources of fundamental importance to a court interpreter: “The Court Interpreters’ Act and Executive Order 13166”.

The sources that de Jongh draws on in her book are appropriately distributed among: 1) linguistic literature on translation, 2) literature on the legal aspects of court interpreting, 3) and primary legal sources regulating court interpreting.


With a PhD in Spanish Language and Literature from Tulane University and 25 years of experience as a federal court interpreter, Elena M. De Jongh has excellent credentials to author a guide to legal interpreting in the US. The present guide builds on an earlier introduction (de Jongh 1992) and is different from its predecessor not only because it has been updated, but also because it has a practical focus and chronological organization of material consistent with the different stages of civil and criminal process.

De Jongh is a valuable addition to the under-published field of court interpretation. While there are bodies of literature digesting jurisprudence on court interpretation, describing general parameters of legal language, and treating general principles and techniques of interpretation, very few works have attempted to integrate these strands into a systematic, introductory level text. While the book does not present any original research findings, its value consists in presenting a systematic, accessible digest of introductory level information on the US legal system, and legal court interpreting. In that light, particularly useful are numerous professional practice pointers, skillfully dispersed throughout the book.

De Jongh’s work is distinct from similar introductory texts. It is based on recent, up-to-date material, and focuses on the US legal system and the English-Spanish language combination. It is thus substantially different from, e.g., Colim and Morris’ (1996) text that is written for the UK legal system. It is different from empirical studies such as Mason (2008) and Angela (2004) that provide in-depth theoretical analyses perhaps at the expense of broad practical coverage. It is more systematic than Gonzalez et al. (1991), a standard terminological reference, and its samples are better contextualized than those in Edwards (1995). Unlike Mikkelson (2000), who offers a general text, not specific to a country or language combination, de Jong’s text is similar to Hale (2004) in that both works select the English-Spanish language pair for practice and analysis.

An appropriate audience for this book is language professionals wishing to enter the field of court interpretation. While all authentic materials are drawn from Spanish, much of the theoretical content is generalizable to other languages. It would serve as a helpful resource for prospective interpreters working toward certification as court interpreters in a formal course of study, as well as practicing interpreters wishing to acquire court certification independently.

Some minor imperfections may be noted. First, because the linguistic focus of the book is almost entirely on Spanish, that slant could have been reflected in the title.

Second, some generalizations are regrettably left without illustrations; for example, de Jongh recommends that interpretation must reflect tone, intonation, and register (p. 18), but does not develop this recommendation.

Third, it is not clear why in chapter 3 the author delays until p. 42 an explanation that complaint, indictment, and information are all different ways to bring charges; the “in summary” paragraph on that page should open the chapter rather than conclude it.

Finally, in Chapter 1 de Jongh could have done a clearer job of explaining the difference between the common and civil law systems. While she correctly starts by pointing out that common law is based on judicial precedent, the point remains undeveloped because no contrast is made with legislation as the main source of law; a reference to Corpus Juris Civilis as the main source of law in Continental systems is not particularly enlightening for non-specialists. Further confusing is the author's characterization of the adversary process as a hallmark of the US legal system. This is not technically accurate; many legal systems, including those based on civil law, use the adversary process in litigation. Perhaps the intended message is that in common law systems, a judge is much more procedurally withdrawn than in Continental systems where s/he may perform active investigative functions.

These minor flaws do not, however, diminish the overall value of this guide.


Angela, Claudia. 2004. Revisiting the Interpreter's Role. A study of conference, court, and medical interpreters in Canada, Mexico, and the US. Amsterdam/Philadelphia: Benjamins.

Berk-Seligson, Susan. 2002. The Bilingual Courtroom. Court Interpreters in the Judicial Process. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Colin, Joan and Ruth Morris. 1996. Interpreters and the legal process. Winchester: Waterside Press.

de Jongh, Elena M. 1992. An Introduction to Court Interpreting. Theory and Practice. Lanham, MD: University Press of America.

Edwards, Alicia Betsy. 1995. The practice of Court Interpreting. Amsterdam/Philadelphia: Benjamins.

Gonzalez, Roseann Duenas, Victorial F. Vasquez, Holly Mikkelson. 1991. Fundamentals of Court Interpretation: Theory, Policy and Practice. Durham: Carolina Academic Press.

Hale, Sandra Beatriz. 2004. The Discourse of Court Interpreting: Discourse Practices of the Law, the Witness and the Interpreter. Amsterdam/Philadelphia: Benjamins.

Mason, Marianne. 2008. Courtroom Interpreting. Lanham: University Press of America.

Mikkelson, Holly. 2000. Introduction to Court Interpreting. Manchester: St. Jerome.


Dr. Yerastov is Assistant Professor of Linguistics at Fort Hays State University. He holds a PhD in Linguistics from the University of Calgary. His research interests include grammaticalization, construction grammar, dialects of English and Scots, and legal language.

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