Review: Forensic Ling / Discourse: Hale (2004)

Date: 29-Apr-2005
From: Philipp Angermeyer <>
Subject: The Discourse of Court Interpreting

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

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 insufficient.

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. dequeísmo) 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, Wadensjö 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.

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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."

Updated on 21 Jan. 2009

This website was created by LIU Weiming on 6 May, 2002.