FuzzyLaw Mini-article

20 Nov 2014

FuzzyLaw: Resonances with Public Service Interpreting training

A reflective piece from: Ronan Malt, Translator and Interpreter (Spanish & French > English)


Towards the end of the module in Public Service Interpreting (Legal Option) which I was studying as a part of the MA in Interpreting at London Metropolitan University we were warmly encouraged by our Course Leader, Danielle D’Hayer, to visit the Fuzzy Law Project website to revise for our upcoming examinations. Upon visiting the website, I saw the section in which the lead researcher, Frances Rock, was appealing for contributions of Mini-articles related to the legal field. In an attempt to respond to this appeal, I have written an article entitled ‘Challenges faced by the Court Interpreter.’ As an Interpreter myself, the article is written from the perspective of the Court Interpreter and it discusses three challenges faced by the Court Interpreter in a given (invented) scenario.


Taking as a starting point the widely held view that the role of the Court Interpreter is to put litigants who do not speak the language of the court on an equal footing with those who do (Mikkelson, 2000, p.1) the present paper offers a critical analysis and reflective discussion of two specific challenges the interpreter faces in fulfilling this role with reference to the scenario described below.

The two challenges selected for analysis will be discussed under the following two headings:

For each of these two challenges the choices available to the interpreter in dealing with them will be discussed, the consequences of decisions analysed and reasons will be given as to which approach is considered the most appropriate.

The scenario: R. vs Sánchez

The murder trial of Pablo Sánchez is taking place at Croydon Crown Court. Sánchez has been charged with the murder of 92 year old James Brown and has entered a 'not guilty' plea. Sánchez has admitted that he did intend on burgling Mr.Brown but that he did not intend on causing him any harm.

On 13th January 2014 Sánchez allegedly tricked his way into Mr.Brown's property. Once inside he attacked Mr.Brown and stole £800 and left. Mr.Brown died ten days later in hospital.

Sánchez is an uneducated non-English speaking Mexican male. A native English-speaking Spanish language interpreter has been booked for the trial. The female interpreter has a postgraduate qualification in Interpreting and is listed on the National Register of Public Service Interpreters (NRPSI). As such she is subject to the NRPSI Code of Professional Conduct. The majority of this interpreter's work is in the field of Conference Interpreting and not in Public Service Interpreting.

During their investigations the police obtained a search warrant to search Mr.Sánchez's property. The prosecution refer to the fact that the police discovered an envelope containing £800 in Mr.Sánchez's home. Sánchez claims that this was money he had been saving up for months to send back to Mexico for the celebration of his daughter's fifteenth birthday.

We join proceedings when Sánchez is being cross-examined by the Crown Prosecutor. In responding to the Crown’s questions, Sánchez regularly employs hedged speech in order to mitigate the force of his utterances. During the cross-examination, which involves direct dialogue between Sánchez and the Crown Counsel, the consecutive interpreting mode is used.



The first challenge to be analysed in this scenario is of a linguistic nature. This is a relevant starting point for our discussion of an interpreter-mediated scenario which takes place in a courtroom within a common-law, adversarial system where the medium used to present evidence is the spoken word. The importance of the linguistic challenge becomes clear if we consider that it is the interpreter who monopolises the means of communication in this battle in which language is the main weapon (Maley & Fahey, 1991, p.3). The focus in this section will be on how the interpreter overcomes the challenge of dealing with Sánchez’s hedged speech.

When Sánchez is being cross-examined by the Crown Prosecutor his speech includes several examples of hedges. Hedged speech can be defined as that which leaves the listener the option of deciding how seriously to take the speaker's utterance (Lakoff, 1975, p.66). The dilemma that the interpreter faces here is whether to faithfully reproduce these discourse markers or whether they should be omitted in the Target Language (TL) interpretation in favour of a more polished version.

In order to analyse how the defendant's hedged speech should be tackled by the interpreter, firstly the possible impacts of hedging in the monolingual judicial setting should be considered.

Linguists have long held that in forming perceptions of speakers, listeners attribute different sorts of social/psychological attributes according to the speaker's dialect, delivery style and voice quality (Berk-Seligson, 2002, p.146). In this regard, hedging is often employed by speakers to soften the impact of an utterance and therefore in a courtroom setting can often be strategically used to limit listener perceptions of criminal culpability (Brown & Levinson, 1978, p.151). Conversely, hedging can give the impression of hesitancy and is a central element of the 'powerless' testimony style (O'Barr, 1982) which sees listeners attribute negative social/psychological qualities to the defendant or witness.

During the cross-examination, Sánchez is asked to describe the sequence of events upon entering Mr.Brown's property. Sánchez in his account says: 'Probablemente se cayó al suelo' (‘He probably fell to the ground.') If the interpreter omits Sánchez's originally uttered hedge ('probably') the interpreted version would be: 'He fell to the ground.' That Sánchez, in his original utterance, employs a hedge makes his answer less definite and can be seen as an effort, on his part, to mitigate the impact of his statement. To analyse this utterances in Gricean terms (1975) this is a hedge which is based on the maxim of 'quality' as the speaker fails to assume full responsibility for the truth of this utterance. As a result, the source language listener may well lack confidence in Sánchez's utterance. If it is considered that an interpretation must achieve the same reaction from the TL listener as it would in the source language listener, what is referred to as 'dynamic equivalence' (Nida & Taber, 1974, p.28) it would seem rather clear that the interpreter should render Sánchez's speech faithfully and to not do so would constitute a distortion of the overall message.

Indeed if the interpreter fails to relay the hedges, there is the risk that the judge and jury could form an erroneous opinion of Sánchez. The interpreter should be aware that the manner in which she reflects the way in which Sánchez gives evidence is just as important as the evidence itself (Colin & Morris, 1996, p.91). At times the interpreter may be so concentrated on the content that aspects of delivery are simply overlooked. Crucially a failure to relay the hedges may not prove to be inconsequential and could indeed alter the outcome of the interpreted event, it could be the difference between a guilty verdict or an aquittal. After all, the interpreter is Sánchez's voice and therefore it is her version which is held to be the legally valid equivalent of what the defendant said (González et al. 1991, p.384).

If the interpreter is in any doubt as to the importance of relaying hedges, reference to the NRPSI Professional Code of Conduct clarifies that the interpreter should interpret 'without adding, omitting or changing anything.' In line with the code, hedges should therefore not be omitted. It should be said at this point that given that the code of conduct is by definition prescriptive, its use for offering guidance in overcoming challenges requires proper reflection and considerations of its practical application. Given that this interpreter has received formal interpreting training, it is hoped that this was an element included in her training.

Based on the arguments laid out above, it may seem rather clear that the interpreter should include Sánchez's hedges in her rendition. The challenge however does not perhaps lie in deciding whether to include the hedges or not. It lies rather in consistently recognising their importance especially considering their apparently superfluous nature. In addition, given that the majority of this interpreter's work is carried out in the Conference Interpreting context, in which the interpreter is given the latitude to 'do somewhat better than the original' (Herbert, 1952, p.62) and in which hedges should perhaps be omitted on stylistic grounds, the challenge is for the interpreter to remember that each communicative situation requires specific performance skills (Angelelli, 2004, p.48).

Cross-cultural differences

Having discussed a linguistic challenge facing the interpreter in this scenario, the second challenge to be explored results from a difference between the host culture (British) and that of the defendant (Mexican.)

Sánchez is questioned by the Crown about the £800 which was found at his home during the police investigations. When asked about this, Sánchez responds by claiming that he had been saving this money for months to send back to Mexico for his daughter's fifteenth birthday celebrations. Sánchez refers specifically to his daughter’s ‘quinceañera.’ At this point the interpreter is faced with the dilemma of dealing with a culturally bound term and deciding about whether to intervene in proceedings and assume the role of the cultural broker.

In deciding whether to intervene, the interpreter's overriding concern should be whether an intervention is warranted, that is, if it could have a bearing on the outcome of the case (Kelly, 2000, p.145). Given the highly prescriptive nature of court interpreting and the general notion in legal circles in English-speaking countries that interpreting is an 'objective, mechanistic, transparent process' (R. Morris, 1995, p.26) if the interpreter intervenes she risks being reprimanded by the court and appearing incompetent especially if the intervention is deemed to be necessary (Berk- Seligson, 2002, p.65).

In this scenario it could be argued that an intervention is necessary in order for a misunderstanding to be avoided. If Sánchez's utterance is interpreted 'word for word' it is impossible for it to have the same intention and crucially produce the same reaction in the TL listener given that there is nothing particularly special about a girl’s fifteenth birthday in British culture. The interpreter’s aim must be to reflect both the semantic and pragmatic aspects of Sánchez's utterance in order for his meaning to be accurately conveyed (Yule, 1996).

The court may well consider that a sum of £800 is rather excessive to be spending on a daughter's fifteenth birthday celebration. Therefore not intervening may give less credibility to the argument that Sánchez had been saving this money for months and that it was not stolen from Mr.Brown’s property. The interpreter therefore may deem it appropriate to ensure that the courtroom is made aware of the cultural significance of the celebration of a girl's fifteenth birthday in some Latin American countries which typically involves a lavish celebration.

To counterbalance the argument that the interpreter should intervene on the grounds that it could affect the outcome of this case, she should be wary of falling into the trap of stereotyping. It is held that each individual from a given culture will assume the beliefs, values, attitudes and behaviours of the broader cultural context to varying degrees (Isaacs, 2002, p.26). In this case, the interpreter should avoid generalising and assume that all Mexican families celebrate a girl’s fifteenth birthday in the same way. For example, perhaps in the area of México from which Sánchez hails, it is not common for a girl’s fifteenth birthday to be celebrated so lavishly, if at all. If this was true, Sánchez's claim that he had saved up such a large amount of money for this purpose would be flawed and any intervention from the interpreter would be ill-judged.

If the interpreter does decide to intervene it is important that she must not be construed as supporting Sánchez's case and an appearance of perceived impartiality should be maintained at all times. Indeed impartiality is a canon of the NRPSI Code of Conduct. The interpreter must be wary of being deemed as being sympathetic towards Sánchez's case by trying to offer justifications as to why such a sum of money was found in his property.

Maintaining a neutralistic stance throughout the proceedings acts as a defence mechanism against such possible charges (Greatbatch and Dingwall, 1999, p.274). In sum, the issue of whether to intervene is sensitive, there is a conflict between the need for the interpreter to accurately convey the meaning of Mr.Sánchez's utterances and to appear neutral in the adversarial setting and this must be carefully managed by the interpreter.

There are several ways for the interpreter to manage any intervention. One option is for the interpreter to ask the judge to question Sánchez about a girl's fifteenth birthday celebration in Mexico. Employing this strategy means that the interpreter would limit themselves to interpreting the explanation given by Sánchez instead of offering their own personal contribution which could introduce elements of bias and subjectivity.

However, this option means that the interpreter draws attention to herself which may not be appreciated by the courtroom based on the 'legal fiction' (Laster and Taylor, 1994, p.113), according to which the interpreter is a 'mere disembodied or mechanical presence' (R. Morris, 1995, p.30). In response to this several scholars have made strong calls for the legal system to offer interpreters greater latitude in the English speaking courtroom (R. Morris, 1995 and Niska, 1995). Perhaps the interpreter could intervene less obtrusively by adding a purely factual presentation of the concrete differences between a girl's fifteenth birthday as celebrated in the UK and Mexican cultures after interpreting Sánchez’s utterance.

Whilst the NRPSI Code of Conduct does allow for interpreters to 'alert the parties to a possible missed cultural reference or inference' (Point 5.12.3) in reality given that the prescriptive nature of the code of conduct, it cannot possibly offer ‘off the peg solutions’ (Tate & Turner, 2002, p.373) to all dilemmas which may arise, to a large extent any decision on whether to intervene is based on the interpreter's professional judgement.

If the interpreter judges that an intervention is justified regardless of how she intervenes, it is vital that all participants are made aware of what is happening and that there should be no ambiguity as to where the message originates. In practical terms this may involve the interpreter informing Sánchez that the courtroom was offered a cultural explanation (directly after the explanation has been provided) and making it clear that in any intervention that it is the interpreter's own voice which is being heard.

The fact that the interpreter is in a position in the first place to have to make the decision about whether to offer information about the celebration of a girl’s fifteenth birthday in Mexico evidences the interpreter’s sound cultural knowledge. The Spanish interpreter is challenged to have a high cultural awareness of all Spanish-speaking countries. This is a duty that is reflected in the NRPSI Code of Conduct.


Based on a fictitious scenario in an English courtroom, this paper has explored some of the challenges the interpreter faces in the judicial setting. Through an analysis of challenges relating to linguistics and cross-cultural differences, two main conclusions can be drawn.

Firstly, that the court interpreter’s decisions have the potential to alter the perceptions of the other individuals in the courtroom about the defendant and secondly that the court interpreter is often faced with sensitive moral dilemmas which challenge their professional impartiality.

Considering the delicate nature of the interpreter’s task in this setting, it is rather alarming to consider that, in the majority, members of the legal profession would appear to be unaware of the challenges such as these which the interpreter faces (R. Morris, 1995, p.42).

In order for the interpreter to be able to satisfactorily fulfil their role, one step which must be taken is to ensure that all of the stakeholders (public and private sectors) develop a better understanding of the interpreter’s role and the challenges which lie therein. This is a central to the movement towards the professionalisation of court interpreting.

In the English and Welsh jurisdiction attempts are being made to improve the situation, the European Parliament and Council Directive (2010/64/EU) on the right to interpretation and translation in criminal proceedings and the efforts of the Professional Interpreters for Justice campaign group represent significant steps in the right direction. Nevertheless much work remains to be done to ensure that all stakeholders fully recognise the considerable challenges which the interpreter faces in the judicial setting.

Ronan Malt MA, BA (Hons)


Angelelli, C.V. (2004) Revisiting the Interpreter's Role: A study of conference, court and medical interpreters in Canada, Mexico and the United States. Amsterdam and Philadelphia: John Benjamins.

Berk-Seligson, S. (2002) The Bilingual Courtoom: court interpreters in the judicial process. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

Brown, P and Levinson, S. (1987) Politeness: Some Universals in Language Usage. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Cole, P. and Morgan, J.L. (1975) Speech Acts. New York: Academic Press.

Colin, J. and Morris, R. (2001) Interpreters and the Legal Process. Winchester: Waterside.

Greatbatch, D. and Dingwall, R. (1999) Professional neutralism in family mediation, in Roberts, C and Sarangi, S. (eds.) pp.271-92.

Grice, P. (1975) Logic and Conversation, in Cole, P. and Morgan, J.L. (eds.) pp.41-58.

Herbert, J. (1952) The Interpreter's Handbook: How to become a Conference Interpreter. Geneva: Georg.

Isaacs, K. (2002) Speech Patholohy in Cultural and Linguistic Diversity. London and Philadelphia: Whurr.

Kelly, A.M. (2000) Cultural Parameters for Interpreters in the Courtroom, in Roberts, R.P., Carr, S.E., Abraham, D. and Dufour, A. (eds.) pp.131-148.

Lakoff, R. (1975) Language and Woman's Place. New York: Harper and Rowe.

Laster, K. and Taylor, V. (1994) Interpreters and the Legal System. Leichhardt, New South Wales: The Federation Press.

Maley, Y. and Fahey, R. (1991) Presenting the evidence: constructions of reality in court. International Journal for the Semiotics of Law V (10), pp.3-17.

Mikkelson, H. (2000) Introduction to Court Interpreting. Manchester: St.Jerome Publishing.

Morris, R. (1995) The Moral Dilemmas of Court Interpreting. The Translator 1 (1), pp.25-46.

Morris, R. (1999) The gum syndrome: predicaments in court interpreting. Forensic Linguistics 6 (1), pp.6-29.

Nida, E. and Taber, C. (1974) The Theory and Practice of Translation. New York: American Bible Society.

Niska, H. (1995) Just Interpreting: Role Conflicts and Discourse Types in Court Interpreting, in Morris, M. (ed.), pp.293-316.

O'Barr, W.M. (1982) Linguistics Evidence: Language, Power and Strategy in the Courtroom. New York: Academic Press.

Pöchhacker, F. and Shlesinger, M. (eds.) (2002) The Interpreting Studies Reader. London and New York: Routledge.

Tate, G. and Turner, G. H. (2002) The Code and the Culture: Sign Language Interpreting - in search of the new breeds ethics, in Pöchhacker, F. and Shelsinger, M. (eds.) pp.373-83.

Yule, G. (1996) Pragmatics. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Information about Ronan


A graduate of the MA interpreting course at London Metropolitan University, Ronan specialises in football interpreting and having worked as Pepe Mel's interpreter (head coach at West Bromwich Albion) last season, he currently provides interpreting services to Premier League clubs. Ronan was recently invited to speak to students at Nottingham University about life as a football interpreter and is currently involved in a research project on football interpreting. In addition he has experience of interpreting in the Public Services sector.


No comments yet

Add a comment