Language and the Law
in Deaf Communities
The score sheet asked judges to rate each signed interpretation on a scale of 1–4, with 1 being the least comprehensible. Figure 2 shows the scoring system and labels used on the scoring sheet:
figure 2. Scoring sheet for comprehensibility judgments
Prior to viewing the videotape, subjects were told in ASL that they were participating in a research project relating to courtroom interpreting. Deaf subjects were told that they would be asked for their “overall gut reaction” about the comprehensibility of the Miranda warning and the interrogation, and that they need not concern themselves with a grammatical analysis of the signed interpretations.
A tabulation of the comprehensibility judgments again demonstrated dramatic differences in comprehensibility as a function of interpreter skill level. The signed interpretations of all the beginning interpreters were found to be incomprehensible. This included their interpretations of the Miranda warning and the interrogation.
Comprehensibility judgments of the intermediate interpreters’ signed output varied by the type of discourse. Intermediates’ interpretations of the Miranda warning were consistently found by the judges to be confusing, with the exception of two judges who found one of the interpretations of the Miranda rights to be incomprehensible. Intermediates’ interpretations of the interrogation were uniformly found to be confusing. None of the judges found these interpretations to be very clear.
The interpretations of the advanced interpreters were generally found to be fairly clear. With regard to the Miranda warning, three of the judges found the signed output to be confusing. The remaining judges found them to be fairly clear. With regard to the interrogation, six of the judges found the advanced interpreters to be fairly clear. Four found them to be very clear.
Like the intermediate interpreters, the advanced interpreters faired slightly better at conveying the content of the interrogation than they did conveying the content of the Miranda warning. I would suggest that the slight differences here in comprehensibility might be related to differences between the two pieces of discourse. One difference is that the Miranda warning is a written text, which is read to a defendant, whereas the interrogation arose as an oral interaction, which was orally reproduced for this study. Written discourse is more “compact” than spoken discourse, perhaps due to greater planning time and lack of “visibility” (Chafe 1982). It is more compact in that it has fewer repetitions than oral discourse, is denser in meaning, and exhibits a greater number of syntactically complex structures (Kroll 1977; Chafe 1982; Beaman 1993).
Second, conceptually, the Miranda warning is much more complex than the “How did Robert Lopez get to the United States?” theme of the interrogation discourse. Consequently, it may be that a basic understanding of how the legal process works is necessary to understanding the Miranda warning. Because of decreased access to written information due to the third- and fifth-grade reading abilities of most Deaf individuals and decreased access to spoken information due to deafness, Deaf individuals as a group probably have less understanding than hearing individuals of how the legal system works. This is consistent with findings by Vernon (1978),