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American Annals of the Deaf

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Interpreting in Legal Settings

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Taking a more ethnographic as well as a macro-sociological approach, Moira Inghilleri (2003, 2005) concluded from her study of the asylum application system in the United Kingdom that there were two distinct concepts of interpreting, namely “linguistic” and “community” interpreting, and that these differing approaches in using interpreters “can lead to substantial confusion about their role both among interpreters themselves and those who use their services.” (2003, p. 1).

Methodologically, none of the authors cited above studied role-related claims by analyzing authentic corpora of interpreter-mediated discourse. While there have been a number of studies on asylum hearings by researchers in such fields as conversation and institutional discourse analysis (e.g., Maryns, 2006; Reischl, 2001) and sociology (e.g., Scheffer, 2001), very little research based on discourse data has been carried out in the field of translation and interpreting studies. Aside from communication scholar and interpreter Cecilia Wadensjö (1998), who drew, inter alia, on interactional sociolinguistics to study dialogue interpreting in immigration interviews, the most extensive discourse-based work to date in translation studies is that of Sonja Pöllabauer (2004, 2005). In her study of first-instance asylum hearings in Graz, Austria, she analyzed a corpus of 20 audio-recorded and fully transcribed asylum interviews conducted by three different officials with English-speaking applicants from four African countries. Drawing on translation theory, critical discourse analysis, and linguistic pragmatics, Pöllabauer examined the performance of three interpreters with regard to their role performance, their positioning in the primary parties’ asymmetrical power relation, and their adherence to professional norms. On the whole, she finds “highly discrepant behaviour which seems to be determined mainly by the officers’ expectations” (Pöllabauer, 2004, pp. 174–175) and observes that the interpreters, far from being “invisible” and neutral, intervene in a number of ways. Rather than serving as intercultural agents as suggested by Barsky (1996), the interpreters in Pöllabauer’s study assume the role of “auxiliary police officers” whose loyalty ultimately lies with the adjudicating officials. Thus, interpreters were found to omit “irrelevant” information and admonish the asylum seekers to provide “concrete” answers; to engage in “internal rounds of talk” that remained untranslated for the other party; and to verbally ally with the officials by using the first person plural to refer to the adjudicator–interpreter team.

For obvious reasons, Pöllabauer’s groundbreaking discourse-based study of asylum hearings suggests itself as a point of departure for the study reported here. For one, the findings sketched out above relate only to first-instance proceedings and cannot be generalized to the Austrian refugee status determination process as a whole. As described earlier, interviewing (and adjudicating) officials in first-instance hearings mostly have a background as police officers rather than a full-scale legal education. Moreover, appeal hearings, which are quasi-judicial proceedings involving two parties, could be assumed to differ from first-instance interviews with regard to organizational arrangements, interactional structure, and discursive functions. Indeed, findings from a survey by Maurer-Kober (2004) among IFARB members suggest that nearly half of the 30 respondents are “often” confronted with appellants complaining about communication difficulties with the interpreter(s) in their first-instance interview. With good reason, then, IFARB members were found to take special care in selecting interpreters for their hearings. Asked about their re-hiring criteria, for instance, the IFARB members in Maurer-Kober’s survey gave special attention to such criteria as “strictly neutral behavior” and “smooth facilitation of communication” (each rated “very important” by nearly three-quarters of the respondents on a four-point scale from “very important” to “unimportant”). By the same token, an overwhelming majority of IFARB members expect interpreters to serve as “neutral linguistic mediators” rather than “auxiliaries to the adjudicator” or “cultural mediators.” Moreover, IFARB members do not give interpreters license to “omit irrelevant information in order to save time,” and a clear majority of them (70%) would not permit the interpreter to “clarify vague responses by asking follow-up questions.” Most IFARB members feel that their expectations are met by the interpreters’ actual performance. Asked about their level of satisfaction with the quality of interpreting, 72% of the respondents said that they were “very satisfied” as opposed to “somewhat satisfied” (28%) or “not satisfied” (0%).

Given this rich and differentiated body of empirical findings on the role and task of interpreters in the Austrian asylum process, our study takes a two-pronged approach; that is, examining asylum hearings at the appellate level for similarities and differences with regard to Pöllabauer’s findings (inter alia, on role behavior and professional norms), and comparing actual practices in interpreter-mediated appeal hearings to adjudicators’ expectations and perceptions of interpreters and their role(s).


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