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Sign Language Studies

American Annals of the Deaf

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Interpreting in Legal Settings

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small number of chairs arranged around a set of joined-up tables. There is no raised seating position for the adjudicator and no special bench for the appellant, nor do the representatives of the institution appear in formal attire such as robes or gowns. The recording clerk sits next to the adjudicator in front of a computer screen; the appellant is usually seated in a chair roughly facing the official, and the interpreter usually takes up a position between the two primary interactants.

Although it is possible for the adjudicating official to decide a case only on the basis of the documents on file, most appeals involve a hearing in which the asylum seeker is given another opportunity to present his or her claim. Hearings are conducted by the IFARB member assigned to the case and typically include the following seven stages: (1) verification of personal data and current address; (2) procedural information and instruction; (3) summary of the facts of the case; (4) taking of evidence, that is, interviewing and questioning; (5) presentation of country-related information; (6) announcement that the decision will be issued in writing; and (7) sight translation into English and signing of the written record.

The core of the hearing is stage four, the interview, in which the asylum seeker is asked about his or her reasons for leaving the country, the circumstances of his or her life before the flight, and about his or her escape route. This leads into a round of questioning, in which the adjudicating official confronts the asylum seeker with apparent inconsistencies in his or her narrative and with discrepancies with respect to statements as recorded in the first-instance hearing. Hence, the institutional purpose of the proceedings is to establish the facts of the case and to assess the credibility of the asylum seeker and his or her story. In this, the interpreter plays a crucial and complex role, as shown in the following sections of this analysis.

Roles and Participation Status

In principle, the interactants’ roles are well defined by the institutional context, that is, the adjudicating official conducts the hearing and ensures that its contents are reflected in the written record; the asylum seeker presents his or her claim and responds to the official’s questions; the interpreter renders the adjudicating official’s statements and questions in the language understood by the asylum seeker and the latter’s utterances in the language of the proceedings; and the recording clerk types what is dictated to be entered in the record. The interpreter’s normative role as commonly laid down in interpreters’ codes of ethics and standards of professional practice and specifically described for the refugee status determination process (e.g., UNHCR, 1995; BMI et al., 2006) is thus limited to rendering the primary parties’ utterances accurately and completely, without adding, omitting or changing anything, and using the grammatical first person of the speaker.

As demonstrated by Pöllabauer (2004, 2005) for first-instance proceedings, actual role behavior in the interaction tends to be much more complex, and a similar pattern of complexity emerges from the current study. We present examples of three types of deviations from the interpreter’s normative role: verbally allying with the adjudicator, acting as co-interviewer, and co-producing the written record.

n e u t r a l   a n d   “ i n v i s i b l e ” ?

Though strongly challenged by recent scholarship (e.g. Metzger, 1999; Angelelli, 2004), the idea that interpreters are neutral between the primary parties and do not intervene on behalf of either side, is deeply entrenched, both in the interpreting community and, in particular, among users of their services, as illustrated in the expectations voiced by IFARB members in Maurer-Kober’s (2004) study. And yet, as shown by Pöllabauer (2004), interpreters frequently position themselves as members of the institutional “team,” for instance by adopting the first person plural to refer to the asylum seeker’s interlocutor(s). The following excerpt from the corpus (Example 1) is one of many examples of such a verbal alliance forged by the interpreter’s use of the “inclusive ‘we’” (cf., Pöllabauer, 2004, pp. 168–169). It is taken from the central part of a hearing in which the appellant is questioned about threatening events in the course of his flight to and stay in the Nigerian city of Lagos.

example 1: T1H2 (34:21–34:36): “we need to know”
1  ADJ   Was konkret ist im Panama Hotel passiert?
              What exactly happened in the Panama Hotel?
2  INT    What exactly happened in Panama Hotel, in Lagos?
3  APP   Yea, while while I was there they attack me.
4  INT    Yes, we need to know exactly what happened during the attack.
               (→REC)  Als ich dort war °° griffen sie mich an.
                            When I was there °° they attacked me.


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