Court Interpreters: Is Justice Being Served?

Date: 16/09/2002

New research by a University of Western Sydney academic has found untrained interpreters may be unintentionally changing the testimony of non-English speaking witnesses in court cases.

The head of the University's Interpreting and Translation program, Dr Sandra Hale, says interpreters usually reproduce the content of a message, but often omit stylistic indicators which can influence a jury's impression of the credibility of a witness.

"Previous studies have shown that those who use a powerful speech style are seen by jurors to be more convincing, truthful, intelligent and trustworthy. Interpreters usually relate what the person says but not how they say it, and that can have ramifications in a court case, where the way the testimony is delivered is equally as important," she says.

"Interpreters tend to omit speech elements such as 'I think', 'it seems like', 'you know', repetitions, self corrections, and hesitations like 'um..' or 'well..'. These stylistic elements play a vital role in helping the listener form their opinion of the person."

Dr Hale says linguistic evidence from several Sydney court cases, involving Spanish-speaking witnesses, prove the need for the accurate portrayal of speech style.

In one example, a witness stated in Spanish: "Uh what do you mean he didn't, what do you mean he didn't he uh said many things, he talked a lot."

But the interpreter reduced this response to simply: " He said many things."

"The hesitations, repetitions and pauses haven't been included in the interpretation, thus changing the tenor of the interaction between the witness and the lawyer," Dr Hale says.

"The interpreter may not even realise they are doing it, but this constant alteration of testimony style could potentially affect the outcome of a case."

Dr Hale says her research proves the need for properly trained interpreters in these positions.

"Interpreters need to understand the responsibility and significance of their role. Their job is to remove the language barrier that exists between speakers of two different languages, and place them on an equal playing field."

"The interpreter must give an accurate rendition of what the speaker says, and the style in which they say it. Those who speak to a court through an interpreter cannot expect that interpreter to 'polish' or improve' their speech," Dr Hale says.

The University of Western Sydney is one of only a few institutions in Australia to offer both undergraduate and postgraduate degrees in interpreting and translation. The courses cover legal and medical interpreting and translation, and have been approved by the National Accreditation Authority for Translators and Interpreters (NAATI).

UWS began offering degree courses in Interpreting and Translation in 1984, and is now a recognised world leader in training and research in this field. The undergraduate and post-graduate NAATI-approved courses are offered in Arabic, Mandarin, Japanese, Spanish and Vietnamese. French, German, Indonesian and Italian are also offered at Master's level, but do not carry NAATI accreditation.

** For more information about Interpretation and Translation courses at UWS, log onto

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