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Sign Language Studies

American Annals of the Deaf

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Language and the Law in Deaf Communities

Ceil Lucas, Editor

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Read chapter two.
Read reviews: Journal of Deaf Studies and Deaf Education, The Sign Language Translator and Interpreter.

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The Ninth Volume in the Sociolinguistics in Deaf Communities Series

From The Sign Language Translator and Interpreter, cont’d.

       The Miranda in question in the title of the second chapter, ‘Trampling the Miranda: Interrogating Deaf subjects’, is the landmark decision handed down by the US Supreme Court in 1966, in Miranda V. Arizona (384 U.S. 436, 86 S.Ct. 1602). This case held that an arrested individual could make incriminating and even false statements under duress and without legal representation. What followed became known as the Miranda warning, where the suspect is reminded of the right to remain silent and the right to legal counsel. This chapter offers a small, yet extremely significant, body of research undertaken by Rob Hoopes. This is preceded by an explanation of the legal landscape, including a frighteningly realistic portrayal of an arrest, and the linguistic landscape summarizing some grammatical features of ASL (American Sign Language). The participants in the study were nine interpreters at various skill levels — beginning, intermediate and advanced. They were asked to interpret from an audiotape five excerpts of discourse, two of which were under scrutiny — the Miranda warning and a courtroom interrogation, taken from an extract from The Bilingual Courtroom (Berk-Seligson 1990). Firstly, the interpreters’ renditions were analyzed for linguistic features and then ten Deaf participants were asked to view these excerpts and rate them on levels of intelligibility. The analysis of linguistic features focused on the number of lexical items produced and the frequency of non-manual signals essential for communication (ranging from the indication of affirmation, to conditionals).

       The results of the analysis were dramatically different amongst the interpreter skill set. The group of advanced interpreters produced many times more lexical items than their beginner counterparts. This is hardly surprising considering they were students, having only completed their second course in ASL interpreting. A table containing a neat column of zeros, the rating for essential non-manual features present in the beginner groups’ rendition of the Miranda warning, makes for stunning viewing. Vital information was entirely absent. However, what is probably more striking in the results is the fact that the advanced interpreters produced 70 and 73 per cent more meaning in the two excerpts than the intermediate interpreters. Hoopes laments this: “I would suggest that omitting 70 to 73 percent of the words contained in either the Miranda warning or the interrogation might render them incomprehensible to the Deaf defendant” (p. 40). When it came to the comprehensibility judgements, the Deaf participants ranked the intermediates’ interpretation at best “confusing” and at worst “incomprehensible”. Even with the advanced interpreters’ rendition, three of the Deaf judges deemed the signed output in the Miranda warning to be confusing. The interrogation proved more successful in its levels of intelligibility, probably, Hoopes proposes, because of the differences in the type of discourse — a written text read aloud, as opposed to an oral interaction.

       The findings in this research serve as a stark warning to interpreter trainers, the police force and the legal system in its entirety. Many researchers on the topic have concluded that highly qualified interpreting skills are essential for the legal process (Katschinka 2003, Phelan 2001, Brennan and Brown 1997). Despite this unanimous agreement on expertise amongst linguists and many of the legal profession there are still situations where people with only a primary knowledge of their indigenous sign language are permitted to interpret’ in the legal process. This is a highly dangerous and inequitable situation. Indeed, Phelan (2001) suggests it may be wiser to postpone cases, rather than to continue with unqualified interpreters.

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Ceil Lucas Professor Emerita of Linguistics at Gallaudet University.

ISBN 978-1-56368-317-6, ISSN 1080-5494, 240 pages, tables, references, index

$69.95 e-book

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