The Linguist

The Linguist 54,2

The Linguist is a languages magazine for professional linguists, translators, interpreters, language professionals, language teachers, trainers, students and academics with articles on translation, interpreting, business, government, technology

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14 The Linguist Vol/54 No/2 2015 FEATURES How robust are procedures for Deaf people in British courts? Jessica Moore explores BSL legal interpreting TV dramas and courtroom flicks aside, most of us have little insight into what a trial involves. Imagine you were called to the stand or required to take jury service. How should you conduct yourself? How does the procedure work? It's a confusing situation for all – let alone for those who cannot hear what's going on around them or communicate in the language of the courtroom. 'Interpreting for Deaf people in court is different from spoken language interpreting,' says Julia Anderson, a British Sign Language (BSL)/English staff interpreter for Clarion. Working almost exclusively in court settings, she explains, 'We have to be opposite the Deaf person so we can see and be seen – normally standing next to the judge or witness box – whereas spoken language interpreters usually sit beside the person they're interpreting for. Because BSL interpreting is so physically and mentally tiring, we work in stints – so two of us switch roles every 20 minutes. While one is interpreting, the other monitors to make sure everything is going smoothly.' The number of sign language interpreters (SLIs) in a courtroom can quickly tot up, too. 'If the case lasts longer than about five days, you really need three people, so that one gets a rest while the others are monitoring and interpreting.' If multiple Deaf people are involved, there may be up to four SLIs. While there is a legal obligation to provide an interpreter for any court case involving a Deaf person, there are many challenges facing SLIs in this context. 'As a visual-spatial language, BSL has nuances that are very difficult to translate,' explains Anderson. 'For example, a Deaf witness describing an event might sign "the man walked to the door, took the key out of his left pocket, reached up to put it in a lock that was quite high, turned it clockwise and entered." We wouldn't say that in spoken language, but because sign language is gestural, the information is all there. Interpreters need to decide how much to unpack for the court.' Giving too much information can have a detrimental effect, she adds. 'If the interpretation sounds unnatural, it can seem suspicious. SLIs therefore have to match the way a hearing person would describe things.' This can also be a stumbling block when interpreting in the other direction. 'Sometimes, something works perfectly well for hearing people, but there's no way to interpret it into sign language.' An example? 'We can't interpret "Did he hit you?" without leading the witness because we need to know whether they were hit with a closed fist or an open palm. We need to know roughly where in the body and from what direction.' If questions aren't sufficiently specific it can cause problems for all parties, says Linda Watson-Thomson, a BSL/English interpreter with court experience. 'Many verbs in sign language are directional, so I could sign "Did you stab Mr X in an upward movement between the shoulder blades?" and the answer could be "no", and that might be true, but it doesn't necessarily mean they didn't stab Mr X at all. So, if the interpreter doesn't insist that generic questions are rephrased in more detail, the Deaf person could, without lying in court, avoid questions that hearing people would have to answer,' she says. 'Then again, if the answer to "did you stab him like this?" is "no", but later it transpires the Deaf person did stab Mr X another way, it can make the defendant look like he's changing what he's saying or being deliberately evasive.' The specific wording of an interpretation is crucial, too, says Frank Harrington, an SLI and Senior Lecturer in Deaf studies at the University of Central Lancashire (UCLan). 'If a Deaf person has been arrested and charged, the interpreter that was employed at the police station can't be employed in court because, at that point, they would be a police witness, effectively. Their interpretation will form the written statement. But sometimes the interpreter in court might use different words for the same signs – as a basic example, the difference between "I hit him" and "I slapped him". Those words could have a different impact. It's a difficult one, but it can be avoided if the police have interviewed with a camera, as what was signed in the police station can be checked against what was signed in court.' The very construction of sign language can also pose problems, says Watson-Thomson. 'It includes something called "negation". If I were to ask a hearing person, "how windy was it yesterday?", they might say "it was a bit wild but not too bad". But in BSL, you Signs of hope in court "I know people who have been told to stop interpreting because they're distracting the court"

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