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Agency and Interpreting

This paper has had a quicker development process than some for previous weeks. I think I’ve only written the bulk of one paper this time, and I tried to focus more on my teachers’ requests to tie-in our papers with lectures and readings more this time, and that was successful to me. I use parallel constructions in this paper often (especially when referencing other works/ideas), which I’m worried about. Overall though, this paper makes connections, and gets its points across in a short manner.

In our text The Bilingual Courtroom, there is a marked focus on the agency and individual personhood of a court interpreter. In a parallel to Lippi-Green’s claims of the uninformed linguistic biases of society, Susan Berk-Seligson lays out the linguistic biases of legal structures. She constructs the current legal ideology of the interpreter as a rote machine, creating 1:1 translations between the exact English and non-English language used. She argues that interpreters instead play a remarkably active role in the courtroom. I want to outline goals necessary to adjust the current situation in American bilingual courtrooms towards one that both respects and recognizes the autonomy and partiality of a court interpreter.

Berk-Seligson states her thesis outright in The Bilingual Courtroom: “It is the thesis of this book that in an ideal world, the American legal system would choose to have the court interpreter physically invisible and vocally silent.” (p54) A court interpreter is intended to act in a limited, and focused fashion. They are directly connected to the non-English witness, acting as the sole English voice for the witness or defendant in most cases. What the court interpreter does best should appear to be nothing at all: speaking fluidly and unobtrusively between those who cannot communicate. Court procedures are developed around this – every time an English speaking attorney speaks directly to a non-English speaking witness, this conception of interpreting is ratified again. This is related to the demand of the courts for proceedings only in English. But put aside questions related to English-speaking hegemonies, power relations, and the world outside of the court, for the sake of brevity. This essay sheds light on roles of the interpreter, not the roles of English.

Berk-Seligson reveals that there is a disconnect between the interpreter ideal in theory, and that ideal in practice. No hegemony is complete, and 1:1 translation is never an exception. Translation is important for comprehension, dialogue, and cross-cultural exchange, no doubt. But is it possible to claim a “perfect” translation between mutually unintelligible languages ever, let alone minute-by-minute in court proceedings? Berk-Seligson says no. Court interpreters today sometimes disregard the pragmatic functions of speech, and draw too much on vocabulary, she argues. This is an absurd practice, as linguistic pragmatics are concerned with the practicality of language – “what is the language doing?” is a question that must be asked, especially as we consider the dangers of cross-cultural interpretation.

These issues bring out questions of agency of the interpreter. It’s clear interpreters are altering the court dynamics The Bilingual Courtroom looks closely at. Interpreters bring open (and hidden) biases to their work, which is dangerous alongside a simple idea – you have power over someone when you speak for them. Agency incorporates responsibility, and as Berk-Seligson pokes holes in the “invisible and vocally silent” ideology, she emphasizes the choices made by the interpreter. Courts have been slow on reflecting these discoveries, as the low success rate of appellate cases concerned with faulty interpreting shows.

The legal system as it stands is untenable – it is ambiguous and idealistic about the role of the interpreter, and disregards linguistic analysis that is relevant, and pressing. Berk-Seligson outlines ways to make these necessary changes. She applauds the increase in interpreter education/certification in America – few things can be as preparatory for qualified, informed interpreting as experience and training. A strong interpreter is better equipped to make decisions about their role in the case at hand; the courts already recognize the case-by-case judgment necessary with interpreters, but this can be increased. It could be argued that interpreters slow court proceedings, but my response would be to find new proceedings that facilitate and regulate this active, autonomous and vital role within the court. There is an emphasis on the values a court upholds, not the rules it keeps. Witness’ rights must come before rulings on how to address an interpreter.

These proposed changes wouldn’t radically alter the court, but merely make it more Foucauldian. There is a constant interplay of power relations between every participant of a court that we need to be aware of, and pretending that an interpreter is invisible does nothing to help regulate this exchange.


Filed under: Evergreen

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