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Review of  Interaction in Dutch asylum interviews

Reviewer: Laura Smith-Khan
Book Title: Interaction in Dutch asylum interviews
Book Author: Susanne van der Kleij
Publisher: Netherlands Graduate School of Linguistics / Landelijke (LOT)
Linguistic Field(s): Discourse Analysis
Text/Corpus Linguistics
Issue Number: 27.1977

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Reviews Editor: Helen Aristar-Dry


“Interaction in Dutch asylum interviews: A corpus study of interpreter-mediated institutional discourse” sets out Susanne van der Kleij’s doctoral research findings, based on the analysis of 14 recorded second-stage asylum interviews from the Dutch Immigration and Naturalization Service (IND).

In Chapter 1, van der Kleij provides an overview of the IND, explaining the different procedural stages through which asylum seekers pass, with special attention to the role and nature of interpreting. She describes past reviews of interpreting and its regulation in this setting, and outlines subsequent adjustments to interpreter training, selection and participation in the IND, as well as the revision of a code of conduct for interpreters. She describes institutional discourse in general and asylum interviews in particular, explaining the roles of different participants. Finally, she presents her research questions: the discrepancy between law and practice, “relation between source and translation”, rendition quality and the role of the interpreter.

Chapter 2 presents existing research on interpreter-mediated institutional discourse, allowing van der Kleij to explain the theoretical framework of her research. Her approach involves two of Chesterman’s (1993, 1997) production norms: the relation norm and the communication norm, the former relating to the similarity between the original utterance and its interpreted rendition and the latter relating to “communication and social practices” (p. 30). Drawing on existing literature, she explains how interpreting and translation can be measured for similarity on four levels: information level, pragmatic level, form level and speaker level.
She argues that dialogue interpreters are active co-constructors of discourse, making choices and interacting with other participants. As well as providing renditions of the other participants’ speech, they may take on a coordinating role, influencing turn-taking by interjecting to interpret, seek clarification, or offer extra information. Finally, she argues that interpreters participation is influenced by production norms (both relation and communication norms), along with their beliefs about the institutional setting. While these norms may be difficult to identify, she proposes three strategies present in the interviews that may reflect these underlying norms. These elements – turn-rendition pairs, clarification sequences and non-translated turns, therefore form the basis of her analysis, set out in Chapters 4 to 6.

In Chapter 3 van der Kleij summarises her methodology, outlining how she collected her corpus and selected data. The corpus is made up of interviews with African asylum seekers, including eight where the language used was English or French and six using “non-western” languages, Swahili and Somali (15 interviews were collected, but one was excluded due to sound quality). This meant that some direct communication between the officer and asylum seeker was possible in some cases (for French or English) but not others. It also created the possibility to analyse how speakers using different varieties of English, French or Dutch communicated. For those interested in conducting similar research, issues regarding gaining consent and cooperation are outlined in detail. Van der Kleij explains that many potential participants declined her request, especially amongst the interpreters. However, she was fortunate to have the support of the head of the IND, which ultimately meant that she was successful in gathering sufficient data. It is worth conceding the possible bias in the sample – those interpreters least comfortable with having their performances scrutinized excluded themselves.

While renditions (utterances by a speaker, transformed into another language, to an interlocutor) constitute the majority of the interpreter’s turns, van der Kleij notes that there are exceptions. After explaining the transcription and translation methods, she explains how she analysed the three discourse components – turn-rendition pairs, clarification sequences and non-translated turns, giving examples and providing information on the type, length and frequency of each component across the interviews.

Chapter 4 presents findings relating to the first of these three components, turn-rendition pairs. Against the expectation of IND’s code of conduct that all renditions are exact translations, van der Kleij notes varied levels of similarity of turn-rendition pairs in the data. She explains that deviations on any of the four levels (mentioned above) may constitute production strategies, and “[d]etermining which production strategies interpreters apply in asylum interviews will provide insight in how norms function as a framework in interpreter-mediated institutional discourse” (p. 109).

She divides her analysis between mutations (additions or omissions in the renditions in relation to the turns they represent), and modifications (mainly changes in part order and form of address, along with some other shifts). Given their frequent occurrence, she concludes that these changes are “the rule rather than the exception”, and that they demonstrate the active role interpreters take in the communication.

Van der Kleij then presents conclusions, first discussing how similarity was affected on each of the four levels, but arguing that (except in extreme cases), interpreting “does not seem to jeopardise a reliable account of the asylum seeker’s narrative” (p. 161). Most important, though, is the simple and clear conclusion that “an interpreter cannot fully conform to the relation norm and the communication norm at the same time” (p. 166). In other words, the institutional expectation that interpreters conform to relation requirements on all levels is unrealistic. As van der Kleij argues, the preceding analysis demonstrates that when interpreters apply production strategies aimed at optimising communication, some level of similarity will be lost. She declares the institution responsible for deciding to what degree this imbalance is acceptable and identifying strategies to counter unacceptable deviances.

In Chapter 5 van der Kleij explores clarification sequences in the data, identifying three categories. The first are those involving repeating or confirming something that has been said (when it has been misheard, forgotten or not understood). These make up the majority (75%) of identified sequences. The second involves the recipient requesting more specific details about an utterance. The third are those requesting additional information. These latter two are triggered by the recipient’s expectations about what an acceptable utterance should be. While the first type are in line with the code of conduct, van der Kleij argues that using clarification for specification or addition risks placing actors outside their institutionally assigned roles. For example, the interpreter may directly ask follow-up questions from the asylum seeker, rather than leaving this to the officer. Further challenges may occur given that often clarification sequences involve only two of the participants – when they are not interpreted to the third participant, the exchange remains inaccessible to them.

This chapter presents the problematic Interview 15 in detail: in that interview, the interpreter, who speaks Dutch as a first language, appears to have great difficulty understanding the asylum seeker’s Ugandan English. The examples given fall into the first clarification category, but demonstrate some of the challenges of language issues. For example, she notes that the asylum seeker appears to simplify his narrative and leave out details to accommodate the interpreter. Also, the officer, who has some English comprehension, sometimes interjects to assist the interpreter, or responds to untranslated utterances, taking on a different role.

Van der Kleij notes that either the officer or interpreter usually initiates the second and third category clarifications. She draws a parallel with shifts mentioned in Chapter 3: sometimes interpreters seek to improve or refine the participants’ utterances in line with their beliefs or understanding about the interview and application process, and this can motivate them to seek specific or additional information – they believe they know what the officer expects. She notes that while officers are supposed to allow the asylum seekers to recount their narrative without interruptions and wait for a questions stage towards the end of the interview, they sometimes interject to prompt addition or specification. This is a means of controlling the pace and detail of the narrative.

Presenting her conclusions to Chapter 5, van der Kleij first relates clarification sequences back to the four levels of similarity. She argues that the appropriateness of clarification sequences depends on whether they resolve issues of similarity and that the three different types of clarification exist on a spectrum of appropriateness, with those seeking to confirm information being most appropriate, and those seeking to add information the least. She argues that clarification use is somewhat limited by the discourse scenario: since each participant has a different role, their ability to interject and seek clarification is restricted. This is especially so for asylum seekers, who are expected to proffer information rather than seek it. Further, she notes that power imbalances mean that the asylum seeker is the least likely to push outside the expected boundaries of their role, while other participants may feel more comfortable doing this. Finally, van der Kleij once again explores the effect of the communication norm. Communicative reasons can explain why participants may initiate a sequence even when relation appropriateness and the discourse scenario discourage it. Interpreters may seek specific details or additional information to communicate the narrative in a more institutionally desirable way, officers may interject for efficiency, and asylum seekers may seek explanations to ensure they communicate accurately and within institutional expectations.

Chapter 6 presents the third and final section of analysis, this time focusing on non-translated turns and their coordinating function. Van der Kleij identifies two categories – those that are devices to control turn-taking and those that aim to optimise communication. She provides examples of turn-taking devices, including those aimed at maintaining the turn-taking sequence, for example “continuers” and “fillers”. These contrast with “stopper” devices, aimed at interrupting a speaker. When successful, these are likely to result in renditions being left out (not translated). Optimizing communication can also lead to a number of non-translated turns. This may involve the interpreter repairing a previous error, or repeating, reformulating or explaining an officer’s question to ensure understanding. Finally, van der Kleij observes a set of turns in which two of the speakers discuss the meaning of a turn, without the interpreter relaying this to the other participant.

Van der Kleij also discusses the “divergent participation frameworks” that explain some of the non-translated turns. For example, proper nouns or names or short words like “yes”, “no” or “okay”, may not require interpreting. Further, she discusses the interviews in which the officer has some knowledge of the language the asylum seeker is using with the interpreter, or vice versa. She notes that this can be helpful for picking up errors, but may displace the expected roles of the participants, with the interpreter shifting into a mediator or supervisor role, stepping in to help clarify rather than interpreting everything. Finally, non-translated turns may arise from divergent participation when the officer asks the interpreter to cover a certain amount of information or questions with the asylum seeker directly, rather than interpreting these utterances from the officer. Finally, van der Kleij notes that non-translation may occur with meta-commentary on the discourse. This might relate to language issues or turn-taking, or interview logistics.

Van der Kleij concludes once again by arguing these various non-translated turns often result from the discourse scenario: participants are influenced to maintain/regain a certain turn-taking order, and promote certain roles. She again refers to this balancing between the relation and communication norm. Optimising communication may sometimes lead to non-translated turns, often excluding one of the participants who cannot understand what is being said. This demonstrates the power and responsibility the interpreter has to judge what to translate and what to leave out. While van der Kleij’s analysis does not reveal any complaints about this exclusion, she concedes that power dynamics may discourage asylum seekers from speaking up to raise this issue.

Chapter 7 presents a conclusion and discussion, based on the above analyses. Van der Kleij primarily concludes that interpreters are active discourse participants, who go beyond providing renditions by co-constructing the discourse and optimising communication. She summarises the conclusions presented in Chapters 4 to 6, but also presents an overview of the differences across each of the 14 interviews included in this analysis. She once again discusses how interpreters effectively have two roles: both interpreting and coordinating, and that the data demonstrate the need to find a compromise between the relation and communication norms that inform these roles. She then considers both the theoretical and practical implications of the research, arguing that her findings demonstrate that strict codes of conduct do not acknowledge the interpreter’s real role. If anything, relying on such codes alone can actually create challenges for asylum seekers. When the code reflects a very restricted understanding of the interpreters’ role (largely ignoring the coordinating activities), it can be difficult for asylum seekers to appeal or complain about their performance.

Not all participants have linguistic access to the interpreters’ decision-making since usually only interpreters can understand both the utterances and their renditions. This means that they have an important role in constructing the official narrative. Importantly, van der Kleij advocates recording the interviews to allow for greater accountability. She notes that while the officers have some opportunities to evaluate the interpreters’ performance, the asylum seekers’ opportunities to do so seem more limited: although they are given the opportunity to comment, and are also asked if they understand the interpreter, van der Kleij noted that even including the extreme circumstances of interview 15, none of the asylum seekers capitalized on this opportunity.


This book makes a valuable contribution to a growing body of studies on interpreter-mediated communication in asylum procedures. Relying on strong, well-argued evidence, van der Kleij’s findings support pre-existing claims that dialogue interpreters are social actors whose role is often more complex than institutional discourses recognise.

Perhaps the only shortcoming is that van der Kleij does not analyse the IND’s written record of the interviews, which forms the official version from which a decision is made – something she acknowledges. While this was understandably beyond the scope of what was already a very detailed and systematic study, she concedes that this makes it difficult to evaluate the effects of the practices identified in the research. Were the choices the interpreters made between relation and coordination really all as harmless as suggested? A comparative analysis of the written record alongside the interview data (as for example in Maryns (2006)) would have allowed greater evaluation of the effects of the production and recipient strategies she so carefully describes.

Nonetheless, the findings presented in this book are important and well argued. By challenging prevailing assumptions about the role of the interpreter in this setting, van der Kleij helps continue a conversation about the way institutional discourse impacts the asylum seeker experience, which will hopefully lead to fairer procedures and outcomes.


Chesterman, Andrew. 1993. From 'Is' to 'Ought': Laws, Norms and Strategies in Translation Studies'. Target 5(1). 1-20.

Chesterman, Andrew. 1997. Memes of translation: the spread of ideas in translation theory. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

Maryns, Katrijn. 2006. The Asylum Speaker: Language in the Belgian Asylum Procedure. Manchester: St. Jerome.
Laura Smith-Khan is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Linguistics at Macquarie University. Under the supervision of Professor Ingrid Piller, Laura is conducting research on language and communication in Australia’s refugee policy and procedures. As part of a team from the Sydney Centre for International Law, she has also conducted multi-site fieldwork across six countries, researching disability in refugee camps and urban refugee settings. With Chief Investigators, Professors Mary Crock, Ron McCallum and Ben Saul, she has presented the project findings at the United Nations and Harvard Law School, as well as in published reports, articles and book chapters. Laura holds a Bachelor of Arts (Languages) (Distinction) and a Bachelor of Laws (Hons) (University of Sydney), a Graduate Diploma in Legal Practice (Australian National University) and a Master in Applied Linguistics (Monash University). She has been admitted as a legal practitioner and has worked with refugees in a para-legal capacity. She teaches at Sydney Law School and Macquarie Law School.