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Sign Language Studies

American Annals of the Deaf

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Interpreting in Legal Settings

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The traditional notion of interpreters’ neutrality and invisibility has been challenged by recent scholarship, for interpreting in general (e.g., Angelelli, 2004; Diriker, 2004) and for asylum hearings in particular (e.g., Pöllabauer, 2004, 2005). Our data clearly corroborate this trend, as illustrated by interpreters’ tendency to forge verbal alliances with the adjudicators by using the inclusive “we.”

Under the broad notion of professional translational norms, we have also discussed the interpreting performances in our corpus with regard to the classic quality standards of accuracy and completeness as well as the use of the first person in professional interpreting. Our findings confirm that deviations from these norms occur in interpreting at the appellate level of asylum hearings just as they do at the first-instance level investigated by Pöllabauer. While we did not embark on a discussion of the fraught theoretical issue of translational fidelity, our examples indicate the risk of semantic distortions finding their way into the written record, and the potential impact of incomplete renderings (e.g., of an adjudicator’s prompt for the appellant to explain an apparent contradiction) on the course and outcome of the proceedings.

As with any transcription-based qualitative study of this kind, the findings reported here should not be viewed as representative, neither of interpreting practices at the IFARB nor even of the work of interpreters for English in that institution or even of the working styles of the seven interpreters in our corpus. Variable situational and contextual constraints require great flexibility in problem-solving, and translational decisions that may be judged appropriate in one case may be less felicitous in another. Also, our intention in collecting and analyzing this corpus has been essentially descriptive rather than prescriptive. Even so, we hope that the institution that has granted us access to these data, the IFARB members and the interpreters they work with, and, not least, the appellants in future hearings may benefit from the reflections and discussions we hope to generate with our findings.

While our corpus is among the largest that have so far been collected and analyzed in this domain, the limitations pointed out above rather make it a (substantial) pilot study, limited to interpreting in one particular language and to one particular (Austrian) institution at the appellate level of asylum proceedings. Nevertheless, we are convinced that our findings are relevant also to hearings in other languages and national contexts, and hope that fellow interpreting researchers will carry out similar and further work on asylum hearings, thereby according this significant field of practice the attention it deserves.


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