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Review of  Speak English or What?

Reviewer: Jonathan Downie
Book Title: Speak English or What?
Book Author: Philipp Sebastian Angermeyer
Publisher: Oxford University Press
Linguistic Field(s): Discourse Analysis
Subject Language(s): English
Creole, Haitian
Issue Number: 29.3316

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“Speak English Or What?” provides an in-depth and challenging insight into the performance and outcomes of interpreting in small claims courts in New York City, USA. Covering the context in which the interpreting takes place in terms of institutional and professional norms, the diversity of the surrounding population and interpreter hiring practices and differences in discourse management styles of the arbitrators hearing the cases, it provides a wide and yet nuanced account.

The first chapter covers the meaning assigned to the choice of language used by those whose first language is not English when they choose to represent themselves in hearings. This chapter serves as a basic introduction to the methods used in the study, including transcripts and ethnographic interviews, and introduces one of the key themes of the book: the idea that language choice in court is meaningful to the court and to speakers of languages other than English, yet its meaning is obscured by arcane and counter-productive monolingual legal norms.

The second chapter provides a detailed overview of the research site in New York City, including the linguistic and cultural makeup of the surrounding areas and a justification of why small claims courts are a unique research site and yet one which represents some of the key issues in both court interpreting research and the questions of universal access to justice that are common in legal research. The chapter also provides helpful insights into the background of the interpreters who work at the court, differentiating between those who have received professional training and those who have arrived at that career through different routes. This difference will prove to be one of the key variables in the book, with those who had not received training often taking more nuanced and contextually helpful decisions than those who had. Lastly, the chapter provides a detailed account of the nature of cases heard by the small claims court and why that route is chosen by some litigants instead of going through more costly litigation.

In a departure from the majority of research in Interpreting Studies, the third chapter moves away from examining the role of interpreters to focus on the role and discourse management styles of the arbitrators in the small claims court. Here, the author finds a binary distinction between arbitrators who treat the small claims court as a miniature trial, tending towards procedural inflexibility, and arbitrators who treat the process as an open conversation, tending towards taking time over evidence gathering and creating space for all sides to have their say to their satisfaction. Embedded within this is a discussion of the narrative strategies that are deemed most acceptable to arbitrators, with their legal background, meaning that they prefer litigants to state their claims in terms of legal provisions rather than in terms of their relationships with the other people involved in the hearing.

The fourth chapter is the most fundamental and most challenging for Interpreting Studies. In it, Angermeyer offers a critical account of the roles of interpreters in the setting he examined and offers a critical analysis of the outcomes of the roles they adopt. As his study included data from 66 interpreters, covering 27 different languages (p. 70), it forms a robust and wide-ranging account. While this chapter does revisit some extant literature in court interpreting and dialogue interpreting more broadly in order to situate the patterns he found in his study, it advances this literature by illustrating time and again the shortcomings of the traditional court interpreter role as a neutral conduit. These range from the most specific, where a choice to simply relay what a speaker said with no commentary leads to confusion as to who is speaking to whom (e.g. p. 86-87), to the more general, such as claim that following codes of conduct that ban interpreters from providing explanations or summaries puts participants with limited English skills at a disadvantage (pp. 98-100).

Chapter 5 discusses the difficulties and possibilities faced by those who testify to the court in a language other than English. The foundational tenet of this chapter is that interpreted testimony is not and cannot be the same as testimony given in English. The very presence of the interpreter, their choices and the structural limits of consecutive interpreting all lead to the testimony becoming fragmented and open up the possibility for misunderstandings. While the author suggests some advantages of simultaneous interpreting, he argues that there is a need to re-evaluate whether it is useful for courts to treat interpreting as if it were an all-or-nothing proposition. It may be that mixing interpreting, code switching and L2 English could provide the fairest means of providing testimony.

This leads to Chapter 6, which deals specifically with code switching in the courtroom. While this chapter begins with a theoretical account of the phenomenon, it quickly moves to examples from the author’s field data and the challenges they pose for the court and for interpreters. Despite the challenges posed by code switching, the recurrent theme of the chapter is that code switching is often used deliberately for specific and important reasons, such as contesting translations, improving cohesion or addressing perceived semantic differences between assumed equivalents in different languages. This means that efforts to impose a language ideology that tries to eliminate code switching are not only doomed to failure but disadvantage those who may petition the court in a language other than English.

This sets the scene for the final chapter, which discusses language ideology and its legal outcomes in detail. Here, the shocking yet well-evidenced point is that court interpreting as it is commonly provided does not, and indeed cannot, put the speaker of a language other than English on an equal footing to English-speakers. The chapter goes on to argue that this disadvantage stems from the powerful language ideologies in the legal system of US small claims courts. When arbitrators expect a rigid adherence to court norms that may be foreign to speakers of languages other than English, enforce an all-or-nothing approach to the use of interpreters and do not take into account the inherent differences between an interpreted and non-interpreted testimony, they add to the already considerable power imbalance of the court.


There can be no doubt that Angermeyer’s book represents a well-evidenced and powerful challenge to current practice and expectations of court interpreting. While experienced interpreting researchers may expect the sustained criticism of the traditional conduit model of legal interpreting, his argument that interpreting itself can disadvantage speakers of languages other than English will come as a shock to researchers and practitioners alike. Further research will be needed to empirically verify whether the difficulties found in his data lead to marked differences in legal outcomes, especially given that his initial findings were unclear on the matter (pp. 200-202).

Despite the power of the argument of the book, its structure could be clearer, as it does sometimes seem that the author begins with one point and analyses an example in so much detail that the force and clarity of his argument is lost. The length of the chapters can at times exacerbate this problem; and end of chapter summaries, especially in complex chapters such as chapters 2, 3 and 5 would have helped greatly. Dividing the book into more but smaller chapters would also have helped readability. Both modifications would have also helped to clarify the ways in which the arguments of one chapter build on the findings of each previous one.

It should be noted, however, that the complexity of this book is likely related to the complexity of its subject matter. The author should be credited with providing a detailed description of the socio-economic and socio-linguistic context of the small claims courts, as well as the legal and organisational foundations of the work of the courts. IHe has set the standard for further research in legal interpreting by demonstrating the value of attempting to tie data generated in specific legal hearings with wider institutional practice, socio-linguistic norms and language use.

By moving beyond the common discussions on interpreter’s lexical choices (e.g. Pym, 1999) and examinations of specific instances legal interpreting based on pragmatics (Berk-Seligson, 2002; Nakane, 2009), Angermeyer shows that our understanding of familiar topics such as turn-taking, repairs, lexical choice and footing is incomplete until it is contextualised, not just within the specifics of a given case, but also within the norms and requirements of the institutional setting in which they occur. In this regard, this book serves as a useful contribution towards linking sociological investigations of the environments in which interpreting takes place and detailed examinations of how interpreters act in these environments. This in turn would go a long way to resolving the long-standing “contextualist” vs. “cognitivist” debate in Interpreting Studies (as discussed in Pym, 2008).

This book will therefore be most suitable for researchers in court interpreting and those interested in linking interpreter behaviour with the context in which they work. For them, the difficulty of clambering through some of the rather dense and detailed prose in some places will be rewarded with the challenging insights and theoretical contribution. Practising court interpreters and active lawyers would also benefit from this book, but the lack of chapter summaries may put them off.

In short, this is a powerful addition to research in Interpreting Studies, that deserves to be read by researchers in all areas of the field for its challenging argumentation and detailed data analysis. While it could have benefitted from slightly clearer structuring and chapter summaries, this does not detract to the overall value of the book.


Berk-Seligson, S. (2002) ‘The Miranda warnings and linguistic coercion: The role of footing in the interrogation of a limited-English-speaking murder suspect’, in Language in the legal process. Springer, pp. 127–143.

Nakane, I. (2009) ‘The myth of an ’invisible mediator’: An Australian case study of English-Japanese police interpreting’, PORTAL journal of multidisciplinary international studies, 6(1).

Pym, A. (1999) ‘“Nicole Slapped Michelle”’, The Translator, 5(2), pp. 265–283. doi: 10.1080/13556509.1999.10799044.

Pym, A. (2008) ‘On omission in simultaneous interpreting. Risk analysis of a hidden effort.’, in Hansen, G., Chesterman, A., and Gerzymisch-Arbogast, H. (eds) Efforts and Models in Interpreting and Translation Research: a tribute to Daniel Gile. Amsterdam: John Benjamins, pp. 83–105.
Jonathan Downie is a consultant interpreter and independent interpreting researcher, based in Edinburgh, Scotland. His PhD examined expectations of church interpreters and his publications since have covered using social media to encourage engagement with research, interpreting research methods and the question of interpreter visibility. His first book, ''Being a Successful Interpreter: Adding Value and Delivering Excellence'' was published by Routledge in 2016 and won the Community Choice Award for Best Interpreting book the same year.

Format: Hardback
ISBN-13: 9780199337569
Pages: 264
Prices: U.S. $ 74.00