Publishing Partner: Cambridge University Press CUP Extra Publisher Login
amazon logo
More Info

New from Oxford University Press!


How Traditions Live and Die

By Olivier Morin

This book brings together cognitive science and quantitative cultural history to look into the causes of cultural survival.

New from Cambridge University Press!


The Acquisition of Heritage Languages

By Silvina Montrul

"This work centres on the grammatical development of the heritage language and the language learning trajectory of heritage speakers, synthesizing recent experimental research."

Review of  The Discourse of Court Interpreting

Reviewer: Philipp Sebastian Angermeyer
Book Title: The Discourse of Court Interpreting
Book Author: Sandra Beatriz Hale
Publisher: John Benjamins
Linguistic Field(s): Translation
Issue Number: 16.1381

Discuss this Review
Help on Posting

Date: Fri, 29 Apr 2005 14:49:37 -0400
From: Philipp S 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
PUBLISHER: John Benjamins Publishing Company
YEAR: 2004

Philipp Sebastian Angermeyer, Department of Linguistics, New York


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

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

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

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

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.


Angelelli, Claudia. 2001. Deconstructing the invisible interpreter: A
study of the interpersonal role of the interpreter in a cross-
linguistic/cultural communicative event, Stanford University: Ph.D.

Berk-Seligson, Susan. 1990. The Bilingual Courtroom: Court
Interpreters in the Judicial Process. Chicago: University of Chicago

Bourdieu, Pierre. 1991. Language and symbolic power. Cambridge,
Mass: Harvard University Press.

Bucholtz, Mary. 2000. The politics of transcription. Journal of
Pragmatics 32:1439-1465.

Conley, John M., and O'Barr, William M. 1990. Rules versus
Relationships: The Ethnography of Legal Discourse. Chicago:
University of Chicago Press.

D'Hondt, Sigurd, Beyens, Kristel, Machiels, Bieke, Meeuwis, Michael,
Blommaert, Jan, and Verschueren, Jef. 2004. Interculturele
communicatie in rechtbanken. Brussels: Politeia.

Davidson, Brad. 2000. The interpreter as institutional gatekeeper: The
social-linguistic role of interpreters in Spanish-English medical
discourse. Journal of Sociolinguistics 4:379-405.

Davidson, Brad. 2002. A model of the construction of conversational
common ground in interpreted discourse. Journal of Pragmatics

Edwards, Jane A. 2001. The transcription of discourse. In The
Handbook of Discourse Analysis, eds. Deborah Schiffrin, Deborah
Tannen and Heidi E. Hamilton, 321-348. Malden Ma.: Blackwell.

Hale, Sandra. 1999. Interpreters' Treatment of Discourse Markers in
Courtroom Questions. Forensic Linguistics 6:57-82.

Hale, Sandra. 2002a. How faithfully do court interpreters render the
style of non-English speaking witnesses' testimonies? A data-based
study of Spanish-English bilingual proceedings. Discourse Studies

Hale, Sandra. 2002b. How are courtroom questions interpreted? An
analysis of Spanish interpreters' practices. In Triadic exchanges.
Studies in dialogue interpreting., ed. Ian Mason, 21-50. Manchester:

Jacobsen, Bente. 2002. Pragmatic meaning in court interpreting: an
empirical study of additions in consecutively interpreted question-
answer dialogues, Department of English, Aarhus School of Business:
Ph. Dissertation.

Kadric, Mira. 2001. Dolmetschen bei Gericht: Erwartungen,
Anforderungen, Kompetenzen. Vienna: WUV, Universitätsverlag.

Lippi-Green, Rosina. 1997. English with an Accent: Language,
Ideology, and Discrimination in the United States. London: Routledge.

Moeketsi, Rosemary. 1999. Discourse in a multilingual and
multicultural courtroom: a court interpreter's guide. Hatfield, Pretoria:
J.L. van Schaik.

Morris, Ruth. 1993. Images of the Interpreter: Studies of Language-
Switching in the Legal Process, Lancaster University: Ph.D.

O'Barr, William M., and Atkins, Bowman K. 1980. "Women's language"
or "powerless language"? In Women and Language in Literature and
Society, eds. Sally Mc-Connell-Ginet, Ruth Borker and Nelly Furman,
93-110. New York: Praeger.

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

Queen, Robin. 2004. 'Du hast jar keene Ahnung': African American
English dubbed into German. Journal of Sociolinguistics 8:515-537.

Roy, Cynthia. 2000. Interpreting as a discourse process. New York:
Oxford University Press.

Wadensjö, Cecilia. 1998. Interpreting as Interaction. London/New
York: Longman.

Wodak, Ruth. 1980. Discourse analysis and courtroom interaction.
Discourse Processes 3:369-380.


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."