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Exploring languages and cultures
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5.4.3 Accuracy versus effectiveness

Court interpreters face further challenges, such as when court personnel use language whose literal translation may be confusing to a witness, or when a witness makes a slip of the tongue, the literal translation of which could create confusion. Court rules require that interpreters should translate exactly what has been said, preserving the original linguistic register, and should not address questions directly to witnesses to request clarification. But what if following these rules to the letter creates obstacles to communication? Can court rules come into conflict with the need for interpreting to be fair and equitable?

Activity 41

Look at the following four examples of court interpretation.


Witness: Ahora, si yo no me tomé ningún acto de echarla, porque yo le prometí que no la iba a echar. (Now, if I didn’t take any act to throw her out, because I promised her that I wouldn’t throw her out.)

Interpreter: And also I had promised her that I wouldn’t evict her.

(Hale, 1997, cited in Keratsa, 2005)


Solicitor: And you are the defendant before the court?

Interpreter: ¿Y usted es el que está aquí en la corte? (And you are the one who is here in court?)

(Hale, 1997, cited in Keratsa, 2005)


Witness: (in German): Some said they would not travel to Israel.

Interpreter: … to Germany; witness says Israel but it must be Germany.

(Morris, 1995, cited in Keratsa, 2005)


Witness: No.

Interpreter: No, sir.

1 What strategy is being followed by the interpreter in each case? Match each example with the relevant strategy.

Using the following two lists, match each numbered item with the correct letter.

  1. Formalising common expressions

  2. Simplifying complex expressions

  3. Correcting an error in the original

  4. Adding politeness

  • a.Example (a)

  • b.Example (b)

  • c.Example (c)

  • d.Example (d)

The correct answers are:
  • 1 = a
  • 2 = b
  • 3 = c
  • 4 = d

2 Now look at the examples again. Do you think the interpreter was doing a good job?


You might argue that the interpreter was doing a good job in all four cases. In examples (a) and (d), the interpreter rendered the witness’s language into a form that would be more appropriate to a courtroom setting. In example (b), the solicitor’s legal jargon was made more accessible to the defendant and thereby helped the court’s proceedings. In example (c), confusion was avoided by the interpreter’s clarification.

You might be interested to know that examples (a), (b) and (d) could all be subject to the criticism that the interpreter did not translate exactly what had been said and that in examples (a) and (d) a false impression was created with regard to the witness’s status and/or personality. In example (c), the interpreter’s correction of the witness’s slip of the tongue caused the court’s disapproval and reprimand since the speaker’s intention was presumed and his words altered.

These examples and the research reported by Gibbons and Grabau (1996) show that the performance of an interpreter may affect how the jury views what happens in court. The researchers conclude that, just as the appearance and behaviour of a witness affects their credibility in court, the performance of an interpreter as they relay the words of a witness may influence how the witness is perceived by the jury in the areas of convincingness, competence, intelligence and trustworthiness, all of which are important to their overall credibility. Therefore, it is essential to have qualified, trained interpreters in court. You will look at the skills required for interpreting in the next section.