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Sign Language Studies

American Annals of the Deaf

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Interpreting in Legal Settings

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In view of the explosive growth of the number of asylum seekers worldwide and the concomitant significance of interpreting in the refugee status determination process, the study reported here sought to investigate the challenges relating to the roles and professional norms of interpreters working in this increasingly important legal setting. With qualitative findings on Austrian first-instance proceedings (Pöllabauer, 2004, 2005) and quantitative survey results on the Austrian asylum appeals authority (Maurer-Kober, 2004) as invaluable points of departure, we studied interpreting practices at the Independent Federal Asylum Review Board (IFARB) in relation to both the role- and norm-related findings for first-instance asylum interviews and to IFARB members’ expectations and preferences regarding the role performance of interpreters contracted to work with them.

Based on a close examination of our 25-hour corpus of audio-taped interviews with appellants from three anglophone African countries, we were able to gain a number of valuable insights, some of which are presented in this paper. Most importantly, the general expectation of adjudicating officials at the IFARB, that interpreters serve as “neutral linguistic mediators” rather than “auxiliaries to the adjudicator” was not borne out by our discourse-based analysis. Rather, interpreters were often found to take on tasks that go far beyond an interpreter’s normative role as laid down in professional codes of ethics and standards of practice, and these extended roles are ostensibly ratified by the adjudicators in the interaction. As illustrated with excerpts from the corpus, some interpreters assume an active co-interviewer role, applying specific questioning and prompting strategies to elicit asylum seekers’ narratives in internal sub-hearings.

Viewed in terms of the skopos or overall purpose of the communicative event, this practice arguably facilitates the information-gathering procedure across language barriers, especially in cases where asylum seekers’ responses are vague and difficult to understand. The interpreters, who have after all been contracted by the authority, thus become agents of institutional efficiency. This phenomenon has also been described for healthcare settings, with opinions divided over whether interpreters can or should indeed be given license to act as co-diagnosticians or co-therapists. In the asylum hearings observed, the interpreter’s interviewing function in, for instance, eliciting the narrative of escape is undoubtedly controversial; in some respects, though, it can be said to benefit the asylum seekers, who are assisted in telling their stories (“Then what happened?”) and receive confirmation that their most recent statement has been understood and entered in the record (“So two years of secondary school, and then?”). Similarly, interpreters responding to vague answers by directly admonishing the appellant to be more specific (“Yes, but-,” “We need to know exactly . . .”) help elicit a detailed account, which is also what adjudicators state as the main purpose of the hearing in the introductory stage of the proceedings.

The extent to which interpreters can go beyond their normative role certainly depends on the adjudicator, and we have shown one example (Example 2) of an official curtailing the interpreter’s interviewing function. In hearings involving English, the adjudicators can easily monitor and restrict such practices. In the case of other, often very exotic languages, which are typical of day-to-day practice at the IFARB, the officials would be much less able to decide which interventions to accept. It may clearly be difficult to draw the line between overeager co-interviewing and asking clarification questions that are needed to ensure proper comprehension (particularly in the case of the African English speakers in our corpus) and that are therefore indispensable for avoiding errors in the written record.

Though a major challenge and achievement in itself, providing accurate translations is by no means the interpreter’s only production task. One of the most striking findings in our study is that most adjudicators expected interpreters to take on the role of co-producers of the written record. Though mentioned by Scheffer (2001) and Pöllabauer (2005), this phenomenon has not yet been demonstrated and discussed in great detail. The corpus extracts included in this paper serve to illustrate a few mechanisms and consequences of this practice, a fuller account of which will be presented in a separate publication. What is readily apparent from our examples is that interpreters assuming this function tend not only to time their renderings to accommodate the recording clerk’s typing speed but also to give explicit instructions for punctuation (“colon, quotation mark”). Moreover, the interpreters cooperate directly with the recording clerk in matters of spelling and by repeating their renditions for the benefit of the typist.

The practice of interpreting directly for the record frequently involves stylistic shifts from oral to more literate renderings, as exemplified briefly in this paper. Given the critical significance of the written record as a basis for assessing an applicant’s credibility and thus reaching—and justifying— the ultimate decision on the claim, the issue of the inevitable filtering process that occurs on several levels when producing the written record (cf. Maryns, 2006) requires more comprehensive analysis in future publications.

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