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Review of  The Discourse of Court Interpreting

Reviewer: Lelija Socanac
Book Title: The Discourse of Court Interpreting
Book Author: Sandra Beatriz Hale
Publisher: John Benjamins
Linguistic Field(s): Translation
Subject Language(s): English
Issue Number: 22.737

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AUTHOR: Sandra Beatriz Hale
TITLE: The Discourse of Court Interpreting
SUBTITLE: Discourse practices of the law, the witness and the interpreter
SERIES: Benjamins Translation Library 52
PUBLISHER: John Benjamins Publishing Company
YEAR: 2010

Lelija Socanac, University of Zagreb, Croatia


The Discourse of Court Interpreting is a paperback edition with corrections of
the book which was first published in 2004.

As stated in the first edition, in many countries, including Australia, the
practice of court interpreting often lacks a proper theoretical background and
is ignored by researchers as a field of study. Since many court interpreters
lack adequate professional training, attempts should be made to professionalize
legal interpreting. As far as research is concerned, most of what is written on
the subject is not based on empirical evidence. Since the first edition of the
book, a number of positive developments have taken place, but most of the
problems addressed in the first edition still persist.

Based on the current reality of court interpreting in Australia, the book aims
to fill part of the gap that exists in the knowledge about the practice of court
interpreters. It deals primarily with the micro-linguistic analysis of Spanish
interpreters' renditions in the courtroom, drawing on social and professional
issues to explain the interpreters' performance.

It describes the discourse practices of interpreters vs. those of the lawyers
and the Spanish-speaking witnesses. The author analyzes in particular the way
interpreters manipulate, filter and alter the messages of the main participants
in their interpretation, and the impact such alterations may have on the legal
process. The book shows how the lawyers' monolingual practices, such as the use
of questions to maintain control and reinforce their power can at times be
thwarted by the interference of the interpreter and at times reinforced by it.
Power is being negotiated through the control of the discourse in the
interpreter-mediated interaction. The book shows how subtle changes in
interpreting, such as the omission of discourse markers, can have pragmatic
significance on the message. The maintenance of equivalence of style in the
interpretation of the witnesses' testimonies is presented as a strong argument
for accurate interpreting. The data show that interpreters are often not
faithful to the style of the original text even when they are faithful to the
content. The results of experiments support the hypothesis that such changes can
have an impact on the impressions of credibility, competence and intelligence
formed about the witnesses.

The data were extracted from seventeen Local Court hearings in New South Wales,
whose proceedings are routinely audio-recorded.

In Chapter 1, Court interpreting: The main issues, the author points to a great
disparity in the quality of interpreters, from the very skilled and highly
educated, who form a minority, to those with even insufficient bilingual skills.
Interpreters should become aware of their responsibilities as professionals,
which include understanding and recognizing the importance of their role,
obtaining pre-service university training and in-service professional
development to constantly upgrade their skills. The interpreting process
consists of three main stages: comprehension, conversion and delivery. In order
to interpret the utterances correctly, three relevant contextual factors should
be considered: the register of the text, the pragmatic force of the utterance
and the culture-specific genre requirement. At the conversion stage, the
interpreter's main objective should be to convey the pragmatic meaning of
utterances in a way that would achieve the same effect as the original
utterance. The delivery phase has been perhaps the most neglected in the study
and training of interpreting, and it is the main focus of the book. It refers
not only to the production of the propositional content of the message, but also
to the manner in which it is presented. Interpreters often make the mistake of
interpreting the semantic meaning only, ignoring, misunderstanding or not
conveying the pragmatic meaning of utterances. The interpreter's aim should be
to replicate the original source language message in the target message in a
manner that would have the same effect on the listeners.

Chapter 2, Historical overview of court interpreting in Australia, provides an
overview of the history and status of court interpreting by giving a review of
government reports on interpreting and translation services in Australia, the
status of legal interpreter and legal interpreting training and research.
Providing interpreter services to those who do not speak English cannot ensure
equal access to justice unless those interpreters are competent. Hence the
linguistic aspect of interpreting: ''competence'' and the professional aspect:
''ethics'' impinge on the social aspect: ''access and equity''. The quest for access
and equity should begin by ensuring that suitable training based on results of
empirical research is available, that practicing interpreters be required to
undertake such training and that performance and ethical behavior be monitored.

Chapter 3, Courtroom questioning and the interpreter, presents the discourse of
the adversarial system in Australia, explaining the purpose of
examination-in-chief and cross-examination. The author describes question forms
and types, pointing to differences between questions in examination-in-chief,
which are freer and more open, and those in cross-examination which are more
coercive, narrow and closed. Within the pragmatic framework, each question type
is then described in terms of level of control, tone, and illocutionary point
and force (Searle 1990). Level of control refers to the way a question can
constrain the respondent by limiting the choice of expected answers. Tone refers
to the level of politeness and the level of hostility or friendliness attached
to questions. Some speech acts may have the same illocutionary point, but not
the same force. Different question types may have the same illocutionary point,
to obtain a particular answer, but one may be more forceful than the other. In
the courtroom, subtleties of word choice can impact on the jury's perceptions of
events, the relationship between participants is unequal, and the institution of
the law provides validity to the different speech acts in use. The study
presented in this chapter was conducted with 13 English-Spanish interpreted
Local Court hearings held in New South Wales, Australia, between 1993 and 1996.
Four more cases were later added. Each hearing was transcribed. Once the
hearings were transcribed, all questions asked by each counsel, together with
their interpretations, were extracted. The questions were then divided into
cross-examination and examination-in-chief for their analysis. All questions
were coded for syntactic type, after which all types were quantified in each
language and percentages calculated. The questions fell into one of three broad
grammatical categories: interrogatives, declaratives and imperatives, with a
number of subtypes. Overall, the English cross-examination questions have a
higher percentage of declaratives than interrogatives. Since declaratives are
more coercive than interrogatives, such a difference seems to make the English
interrogation more coercive than the Spanish interrogation. Tag questions were
found to cause interpreters most difficulty, so that the tag was omitted most of
the time. It was found that the main reason for the interpreters' omissions of
certain features was a lack of syntactic and semantic equivalence. However, it
was proposed that pragmatic equivalence can be achieved by maintaining the same
or similar illocutionary force. This was presented through a detailed analysis
of all occurrences of declaratives with tags and modal interrogatives with their
respective Spanish interpretations.

Chapter 4, The use of discourse markers in courtroom questions, concentrates on
the use of ''well'', ''now'' and ''you see'' prefacing lawyers' questions both in
examination-in-chief and in cross-examination. The data demonstrate that in
cross-examination, these discourse markers were used as an assertive device,
indicative of superior authority. When found in examination-in-chief, they were
mostly used to maintain control of the flow of information, as well as to mark
progression in the story line. When found in cross-examination, they were
generally used as markers of argumentation and confrontation, mostly initiating
disagreements or challenges. Interpreters omitted these markers almost
systematically, with very few exceptions. Examples showed that at times the
incorrect translation of a discourse marker changed the implicature of an
utterance. Most other instances of complete omissions showed a change in the
illocutionary force of the utterance, even if the illocutionary point remained
the same.

Chapter 5, The style of the Spanish speaking witnesses: answers and the
interpreters' renditions, looks at witness testimony through their answers. It
discusses the importance of testimony style in witness character evaluation and
looks at how such styles are either maintained or altered by the interpreter. It
explores features of powerless and powerful speech styles as well as the concept
of relational vs. rules orientation in witnesses' testimonies. The author also
presents the results of matched-guise experiments on impressions of credibility,
competence and intelligence. Those defendants who demonstrated a relational
orientation presented stylistic features of powerless speech style, while the
rules-oriented defendants' styles were consistent with the powerful speech
styles. Jurors reported that they believed the speakers who used the powerful
speech style to be more convincing, more truthful, more competent, more
intelligent and more trustworthy (O'Barr 1982: 74). The answers from the corpus
were analyzed for features common to powerless speech: the use of hesitations,
discourse markers, fillers and hedges, repetition, pauses, and backtracking. As
grammatical errors were found to be a feature common in interpreters'
renditions, these were also analyzed. The results showed that very rarely were
powerless speech features maintained in the interpretation as a conscious
translation of the original. Most of the time, when they appeared in the
interpretations, they were the interpreters' features and not the witnesses'.
Interpreters had substantially fewer repetitions, backtracking, pauses, fillers,
hedges and discourse markers than the original Spanish answers. The study showed
that witnesses' speech styles are constantly altered by interpreters, while
other features which can also be construed as powerless speech features or
detrimental to the evaluation of the witness's character and credibility were
often added by the interpreter. There were incidents where the interpreter
omitted repetitions and hedges, for example, but added grammatical errors, a
poor pronunciation and a number of hesitations, while in other instances the
interpreted version was noticeably improved. The results of the matched-guise
experiment showed that there was a significant difference between the
evaluations elicited by the original Spanish speakers and by their interpreters'
renditions. In three cases the interpreter's versions were rated as more
competent, more credible and more intelligent, while in one case it was the
opposite. This confirmed the hypothesis that interpreters can alter the style of
the witnesses' testimonies either to their benefit or to their detriment. It
can be concluded that the accuracy of interpretation must involve both accuracy
of content and of style.

Chapter 6, Control in the courtroom, looks at the interaction between questions
and answers and explores the notions of power and control in the courtroom, the
institutionalized division of roles and the interpreter's interference with this
notion. It also discusses the power of the interpreter to manipulate language in
subtle ways. The chapter also highlights the constant negotiation of power that
occurs in the courtroom. Lawyers in the courtroom exert their power mainly
through their strategic use of questions which narrows the witness's choice and
length of answers, allowing the examiner to phrase the evidence, rather than the
respondent. Similarly, the role of questioner gives lawyers the power to control
the agenda or the topics that are introduced in the courtroom (Agar 1985, Sibley
& Merry 1986, Walker 1987, Maley & Fahey 1991). However, despite the fact that
power is invested in the institutions, its exercise becomes personal and
individual and less legal in character. The power struggle between lawyer and
witness becomes interpersonal as manifested through the discourse. This can
produce outcomes ranging from successful subordination of the witness to
challenge and even negation of the lawyer's position. When a lawyer has to
address a person through an interpreter, some of the power slips away from him
or her and shifts to the interpreter who is now in control of the language,
monopolizing the means of communication (Fenton 1997:30). The findings emphasize
the intricate nature of courtroom interaction with its allocations of power
which need to be constantly defended by those who possess it, and the heightened
complexity of interpreter mediated struggles for power.

Chapter 7, The interpreters' response, presents the results of a questionnaire
sent to practicing Spanish interpreters asking about their views on issues of
role, accuracy and the language of the courtroom and asks them to translate
segments extracted from the data which are then compared to the results
previously discussed. Their answers were not always consistent with their
translations, i.e. their translations did not always reflect the views they
expressed about accuracy of interpretation or role of the interpreter.

Chapter 8 concludes the book by summarizing the results of each chapter and
arriving at a further understanding of the linguistic performance of
interpreters working in the courtroom. It suggests possible implications of
interpreters' discourse practices, defines the role of the court interpreter
based on the results, and makes recommendations for further research and training.


The Discourse of Court Interpreting is an important contribution to a number of
areas. It is primarily aimed at the field of court interpreting, adding to the
limited knowledge about its practice and theory. It provides answers to
practical problems based on empirical results, and its findings will be useful
to court interpreters, interpreter educators and researchers. The book also
makes a contribution to the field of discourse analysis regarding the discursive
practices of different agents, the way in which discourse is negotiated in an
institutional setting, and the way social roles are affected by discourse.
Another contribution is made to the translatability of oral discourse between
Spanish and English, from the lexical and grammatical to the pragmatic aspects
of both languages. The book is also a contribution to achieving a higher
standard of justice to speakers of non-dominant languages in the context of the
courtroom. It provides linguists, interpreters and legal practitioners alike
with invaluable insights into the multiple ways in which pragmatics can have a
crucial role in interpreted legal proceedings.


Agar, M. 1985. Institutional discourse. Text 5 (3), 147-168.

Fenton, S. 1997. The role of the interpreter in the adversarial courtroom. In
The Critical Link: Interpreters in the Community. Conference proceedings, S.
Carr, R. Roberts, A. Dufour and D. Steyn (eds.), 29-34. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

Maley Y. & Fahey, R. 1991. Presenting the evidence: constructions of reality in
court. International Journal for the Semiotics of Law 10: 3-17.

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

Searle, J.R. 1990. A classification of Illocutionary Acts. In Cultural
Communication and Intercultural Contact, D. Carbaugh (ed.), 349-372. New Jersey:
Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Sibley, S.S. & Merry, S. 1986. Mediator settlement strategies. Law and Policy
8 (1): 7-31.

Walker, A. G. 1987. Linguistic manipulation, power and the legal setting. In
Power through Discourse, L. Kedar (ed.), 57-80. Norwood, N.J.: Ablex Publishing

Lelija Socanac is Associate Professor at the Faculty of Law, University of Zagreb, Croatia. She is the coordinator of the Centre for Language and Law, and she currently directs the project Legal and Linguistic Aspects of Multilingualism. Her main research interests include sociolinguistics, contact linguistics and legal linguistics.