March 13, 2006

Interpretation, Translation and the Mess in Our Courts

 Bill Poser's post on the problems of court interpretation is a stark reminder of how much linguists need to do in the matter of justice for speakers of languages other than that of the courts (see here and here). A few linguists have addressed the issues of court interpretation and how critical it can be. Susan Berk-Seligson's The Bilingual Courtroom (Chicago, 1990) and Sandra Hale's The Discourse of Court Interpreting (John Benjamins 2004) leap to mind but there are others as well.  One recent book related to court interpretation of deaf people is Language and the Law in Deaf Communities, edited by Ceil Lucas (Gallaudet University Press, 2002). It shows how the problems Poser mentions for non-English speakers are even greater when the deaf  take the witness stand.

A few years ago I encountered this problem in a case in which English transcripts of Spanish speakers in undercover tape recordings were used as evidence. The prosecution provided only an English translation of the tapes. Even with my limited knowledge of Spanish I could tell that they were dead wrong in several crucial places. I pointed this out to the defense attorney who then commissioned a translation of his own. Not surprisingly, it showed that the government's translation was badly in error. Naively perhaps, the judge then ruled that the two opposing translators should get together and try to agree on a single, accurate translation. This effort failed miserably, of course, and the judge finally ruled that both translations could be used at trial. His decision was hardly Solomonic but it was better than many of the usual judicial rulings about the use of foreign languages at trial.  

 But this type of solution is usually not available in the case of trial testimony, when on-the-spot interpretation is required. Last I heard in such cases there is commonly no transcription of the original foreign language used by the witness, thereby leaving no record that can be checked for accuracy of the interpretation. So it has to be accurate on the first try. The system simply skips this important phase and goes directly to the interpreter's version of events which, as Bill points out, becomes the official court record. This can be an unmitigated disaster in terms of justice.

I recently had the opportunity to hear government translation officials describe how the thousands of backlogged intercepted communications in US intelligence offices are made available for security analysis. Without embarrassment they told me that the translators select tapes in order to discover what might be important for national security purposes and then provide English translations of those passages that they consider important. At least two crucial steps are missed entirely here. First, translators are not intelligence analysts and cannot possibly know what is "important for national security purposes" and what is not. Second, this process offers no way to determine whether the translations of those passages are accurate because they don't make a transcription of the original language that can be checked or verified for translation accuracy. No time for this, they explain, and leave it at that.

Needless to say, linguists still have a lot of work to do in educating the fields of law and government about language, interpreting and translation.

Roger Shuy   

Posted by Roger Shuy at March 13, 2006 12:05 PM