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American Annals of the Deaf

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Interpreting in Legal Settings

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Our fieldwork on interpreting practices in asylum hearings at the IFARB was conceived as an ethnographic study with a focus on the analysis of audio-recorded hearings.[1] Given our own linguistic qualifications and the composition of Pöllabauer’s corpus, the scope of our project was limited to asylum review hearings involving English-speaking appellants, more precisely, to cases of asylum seekers from anglophone African countries.

After the IFARB chairman had endorsed our study proposal and granted us access to the institution for data collection, five IFARB members (three women, two men) agreed to take part in the study. Following advance notice of the date and time of hearings, we participated as observers and brought a digital tape recorder (Sony TCD-D8) fitted with an external stereo microphone to record the hearings. While in most cases the interpreters had been informed in advance by the official that the hearing would be taped for research purposes, the asylum seekers were approached before the hearing in the waiting area and asked for their permission after a brief explanation of the aims and methods of our study. They were told, in particular, that all personal data would remain anonymous and that the study had no bearing whatsoever on the outcome of their cases. Having agreed to the recording, they received detailed information about the project in writing (in English) and were expressly advised that they could revoke their permission at any time during or after the hearing. Permission to record was granted in all cases but one.[2]

A total of 14 hearings conducted by the five adjudicators and involving seven different interpreters (five women, two men) were recorded between October 2005 and October 2006, amounting to a total duration of 25 hours. On average, hearings lasted about 100 minutes, ranging from 26 minutes to 3.5 hours. The sample of interpreters exhibited a range of professional qualifications and experience. The majority had MA-level training in interpreting and considerable professional experience, and most were court-certified interpreters. Out of the 14 asylum seekers in the study, 12 came from Nigeria and 1 each from Gambia and Zimbabwe.

The recordings on digital audio tape were converted into digital audio files and transcribed orthographically using standard word-processing and media-player software. In addition to the corpus of audio-recordings and transcriptions, our data also include fieldnotes from participant observation and informal interviews.


Our analytical approach was informed by the tenets of functionalist translation theory, or skopos theory, as presented, for instance, in Nord (1997). Thus, our understanding of the data was guided by our concern with the institutional purpose of the communicative event and with the interaction and the relevant characteristics of the individual participants. Moreover, our analysis draws on concepts of interaction and discourse analysis as applied by Wadensjö (1998).

Out of the many interesting observations to be gleaned from a close study of this rich corpus of data, we have selected the following two aspects for presentation in this paper: (1) the role(s) and participation status of the interpreter and the adjudicating official working as an adhoc team; and (2) the translational norms reflected in the interpreter’s renderings, in particular the use of the speaker’s “I” (first person) as well as the classic standards of accuracy and completeness.

Situational Context and Structure

Unlike first-instance asylum hearings, appellate proceedings at the IFARB involve two parties, the asylum seeker and the Federal Asylum Office, whose negative decision is being challenged. In practice, the first-instance authority is not represented in these hearings. Therefore, the constellation of interactants normally includes the adjudicating official, the asylum seeker, the interpreter, and the recording clerk. Persons of the asylum seekers’ confidence and other observers are also admitted to these public hearings. Although the proceedings are of a similar nature as those in a courtroom, the general setup is considerably less formal. The hearings usually take place in plain, medium-sized rooms furnished with a

1. This project, initiated by the second author, was supported by the University of Vienna with a grant (F009-G) to the first author. This financial assistance is gratefully acknowledged.

2. We would like to express our sincere thanks to the asylum seekers and interpreters for their permission to be recorded for this study, and in particular to the IFARB members who granted us access to their hearings.

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