Saturday, June 23, 2007


L'interprète qui s'ignore

The webstream of the Floyd Landis hearing (see earlier post) is apparently no longer available (wonder what that's about) but I still want to comment on the strange instruction given by the presiding arbitrator to the interpreter before he went about his work. This was to 'translate the words' and, explicitly, not to interpret.

Now personally I don't regard it as a major crime to refer to interpreters as translators, although it can sometimes cause confusion (e.g. when delegates at international gatherings complain of problems with 'the translation', as they sometimes do, and it's not clear whether it's the spoken or the written word that has been traduced).

But how bizarre to enjoin the interpreter specifically not to do precisely what he's there to do.

Now it's not as if the word 'interpreter' was some insider jargon unknown to the wider world. It is after all the established term at the UN and the EU and many other places

There's even been a major-release movie entitled 'The Interpreter', all about an interpreter.

So what can the arbitrator possibly have had in mind when he instructed the interpreter not to interpret? He can hardly have been unaware that interpreters are commonly known as 'interpreters'.

Does he think that what interpreters do when 'interpreting' is to polish up what the speaker says and that they have a second mode of operation ('translating the words') which is less fancy but more faithful?

And, more to the point, how could the interpreter then solemnly undertake not to do what he knew he was just about to do (and was contractually bound to do)? Could it be that all his career long - à la Monsieur Jourdain - he had been interpreting without knowing it?

>... more to the point, how could the interpreter then solemnly undertake not to do what he knew he was just about to do ...<

Easily. Isn't the distinction being made that of the difference between "interpreter" in the sense MW1a: "one who translates orally for parties conversing in different languages" and the sense MW1b: "one who explains or expounds"?

(MW = Merriam-Webster's Collegiate 11th Ed.)

In the light of the recent reports of the court interpreter "scandal" in The Scotsman ( I have been trying to convince M.M. of the virtue of applying MW1b as well as MW1a to court interpreters.

Surely, what a defendant (and a witness) needs is not so much a literal translation of the questions being addressed to him/her (although that too) but a clear explanation of what is going on, even to the extent of the interpreter giving limited legal advice and bending the translation to the benefit of his/her "client".

Since in applying GVG §182 (2), German law foresees judges performing interpreter (MW1a) functions under certain circumstances, is it not time for German law (better: EU law) to foresee court interpreters giving legal advice? This would regularize the situation in Scotland (and, as Margaret suspects, in many other places too).

The narrow view, to which you appear to subscribe, benefits the lawyers and nobody else - surely the time has come to introduce adversarial interpreting and Scotland appears to be leading the way!
I always assumed that the reason interpreters are known as such is because MW1a necessarily involves an element of MW1b. Interpretation is certainly not about providing "literal translation", although not too many judges etc. seem to grasp this.

I have no firsthand experience of court interpreting but from what I gather even getting the basic message across can be taxing enough without trying to give legal advice as well. Unless you count paraphrasing technical language as giving legal advice.

As regards "adversarial interpreting" and "bending the translation to the benefit of the client", these are contradictions in terms. The whole point of intepretation is to have everyone on the same page. Translating "guilty" as "not guilty" won't get the defendant off.
By "giving legal advice" I am thinking of the interpreter translating a question to an accused and including advice on how the accused should frame his/her reply or simply adapting the actual reply to be what the interpreter believes to be in the "client's" best interest. I have been before German courts in five different cases either as party in civil cases or as witness in criminal cases and in all five cases I would have dearly liked to have had an interpreter who was actively on my side. I sure could not rely on my lawyer to keep me informed.

By "adversarial interpreting" I mean that prosecution and defense (or the parties separately in civil cases) should each have their own interpreters who would be allowed to argue points of interpretation right there and then. Afterwards is mostly too late.

The whole point of interpretation is to enable the case to go ahead in the event that one of the parties cannot understand a word. If that party can understand but not express him/herself then there is no right in German law to have an interpreter at all - your "having everybody on the same page" is a matter of expediency, so that the judge can be sure that his questions are understood; I am pleading for having an interpreter as a means of compensating for the disadvantage that the accused has in being tried in a foreign language. I would want to have an interpreter who was "on my side", not one who primarily has a vested interest in getting further jobs from that court and hence in pleasing that judge. OK, so I am a cynic!
It might well be a good idea to have somebody provide the kind of assistance you describe but surely not the interpreter. It is the very essence of interpreting to report only what is said and to keep your own views to yourself. Once you start blurring that distinction you are failing in your primary function.

As regards your experiences in the German courts, the right to an interpreter is not an EU matter but is enshrined in the European Convention on Human Rights. The case-law takes account of national differences in criminal proceedings. See
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