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American Annals of the Deaf

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Interpreting in Legal Settings

Debra Russell and
Sandra Hale, Editors

Interpreting in Asylum Appeal Hearings:
Roles and Norms Revisited

Waltraud Kolb and Franz Pöchhacker

The involvement of interpreters in legal proceedings with speakers of other languages has a long history, as illustrated by the sixteenth-century laws regulating judicial interpreting in the Spanish colonies. Though it received relatively little attention as a field of practice and research until the 1980s, interpreting in legal settings has since emerged as one of the major domains of the profession and of academic study. While this is true for the spoken and signed language modalities alike, the study presented here addresses a setting that is almost exclusively the domain of spoken-language interpreters.

With the exception of international tribunals, legal interpreting is typically set in a particular national context and thus constrained by a specific judicial framework and legal tradition. The resulting diversity of practices is a difficult challenge to efforts at international harmonization (e.g., Hertog, 2003), but also a rewarding one for researchers interested in the role of interpreters in the institutional search for truth and justice. This challenge is all the more extensive given the diversity of settings, ranging from police interrogations and client-lawyer consultations to administrative hearings and judicial proceedings in open court. The present study investigates legal interpreting in one of these diverse settings within a given national context, that is, asylum hearings in Austria. What is more, we focus on a particular phase in the asylum process, the appellate level, arguably the crucial one for determining an applicant’s refugee status.

Given the importance of context, in its sociocultural and legal as well as institutional and situational dimensions, we begin with a brief sketch of the refugee status determination process in Austria, with particular emphasis on the appellate level. We will then review some of the main research issues and findings for interpreting in asylum hearings in general, and for first-instance proceedings in Austria in particular, before introducing our empirical study and the specific topics addressed in this paper, namely (1) the interpreter’s role and participation status, and (2) the translational norms reflected in the interpreter’s renderings.


The right to seek asylum from persecution in other countries is enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and regulated under international law by the Geneva Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, adopted by the United Nations in 1951, as well as the 1967 Protocol to the Convention and other international agreements. According to these fundamental legal instruments, refugee status is to be granted to individuals who have left their home country “owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion” (Art. 1, A [2]).

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