Translation and the Law

Translation and interpretation services can be applied in more ways than smoothing business transactions or making sure that the goings on at international meetings are understood by all present. Translation can even be used for more than that utmost important task of translating Harry Potter into every language known to man. These valuable services can be applied to specific fields like law or medicine.

There is a famous Australian case in which a baby disappeared from a tent where a mother was sleeping near Ayers rock, or Uluru as it is now known. It was determined that a dingo carried the baby off but only after the mother was charged with murder. She sued and in the hearing of the Commission of Inquiry into the Chamberlain affair an Aboriginal lady who was also an expert tracker was called to testify as an expert witness with the aid of an interpreter. During cross-examination she was asked to consider a variety of hypothetical situations like, could the dingo have been carrying a rabbit or a joey. However, Aboriginal society dictates that one doesn't discuss false hypotheticals, so in response to these questions she replied, " You are talking your ways with your ideas and you are talking about lies".

The interpreter was unable to elaborate on the reasoning behind the "lies" and wasn't allowed to briefly explain the western culture's custom of cross-examination to her. When the Commissioner intervened with what he thought was the solution, he asked directly, "Could the dingo have been carrying a joey?" To which she replied, "Was a kangaroo living in the tent?" She was not a stupid woman and anticipated the manner in which they were trying to dissect the argument.

This example is one of a number provided by Michael Cooke, a lecturer in Aboriginal Languages and Linguistics in Australia. He is an expert on the problems faced by Aboriginal people who become involved with the police or the courts but aren't familiar with the western language and culture.

Timothy Dunnigan and Bruce T Downing, from the University of Minnesota both believe that in order to address the problem we need to drastically improve interpreter training and selection. Cooke believes that interpreters should be allowed to provide some background explanation as well as translation. If the witness doesn't fully understand the context or the situation then all the requirements of the court of law, namely, that the evidence and arguments in the case must be clearly understood by all, can't be met.

Helga Niska of Stockholm conducted a broad survey or court interpreting in real life and found information that could prove useful to lawyers who deal with interpreters regularly in court. The survey covered issues like the interpreter being neutral or pro prosecution or defense, or even on the side of the witness; time restraints imposed on interpreters and the resulting pressure to rush; legal status of court interpreters in various jurisdictions; rules and conventions regulating how interpreters work; the natural conflict between the pace of the trial and the necessary deceleration for the use of an interpreter; speakers overlapping. How this information is used is up to the lawyers and judges, who use interpreters, and also up to the interpreters themselves, to stand up and say what it is that they need to work more effectively and efficiently in the courtroom.

Janis Palma, a federally certified freelance court interpreter working in Puerto Rico, has identified textual density as a potential problem for interpreters. She shows how utterances of the same length or number of words can be easier of more difficult for an interpreter to remember, depending of the density of the content. In law, for instance, many texts are content dense.

Kate Storey of Monash University in Australia is an expert in how interpreters can be used in forensic speaker identification, which is a fascinating field where they identify voices from recordings.

Translation in the courtroom is bound by very tight, very strict laws that don't leave room for much movement. Logically this makes sense as we are dealing with the law and the law needs to be tightly controlled with no leeway. However, there is an argument for some elbow room when it comes to translation, as the dingo case showed, some cultures simply don't understand each other, and some explanation is needed. In addition to cultures not understanding each other, languages do not translate all the neatly into each other either, sometimes a little extra explanation is needed to convey the exact meaning of what was said or meant. Either way, translation is a tricky business, one that requires patience and understanding, not rushing and patronization.

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Source by Sandy Cosser

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