Saturday, July 28, 2007

Court interpreters

Our new contributor Monica debuted yesterday with something on drunk driving and I posted this morning on plagiarism. Let's get back to linguistics, if not yet to happier subject matter: The news has been filled recently with one of those stories of outrage at the judicial system: A young man accused of raping a child was freed after a judge ruled that he'd been denied a speedy trial because of the failure to find an interpreter for his native language, Vai. (It's a Mandé language of West Africa —Liberia and Sierra Leone, spoken by something like 100,000 people, according to various sources.)

There are various issues here, including how badly he needed an interpreter: He apparently was enrolled in ordinary classes (not ESL) in high school and gave an interview in English to a reporter. But whatever the facts, the coverage is pretty flawed … A TV report I caught part of earlier today raised the question of how difficult it was to get an interpreter, going for a kind of gotcha moment: They interviewed a man who speaks Vai and asked him if he'd be willing to serve. He said more or less "yes, of course". This creates the impression that anybody with good basic knowledge of two languages is competent to serve as an interpreter in court. Not so, of course.

I hope that Roger Shuy at Language Log or somebody else who understands issues of language and the judicial system will give some expert commentary here.

6 comments:

Anonymous said...

Interesting aside about court interpreters: recent run-ins among the Amish with building codes in several states has put out a *minor* (and probably unnecessary) call for Penna Dutch court interpreters (and apparently this is nothing new)... so I guess there is an elusive career start out there for those elderly southeastern Pennsylvanians... other than being Walmart greeters...

Anyone in Wisconsin teaching a course on forensic linguistics yet?

Mr. Verb said...

Seriously? There can't be enough Amish doing that kind of work who lack solid English skills to make this a real need. Or am I missing something?

We've got a really good person in the Law School who deals with some linguistic stuff, but I don't know if this is her cup of tea.

Anonymous said...

I know of at least three cases... though two may be the same one. I was having problems finding the article:

http://64.233.169.104/search?q=cache:vgaehwRau24J:www.newyork.newsperspective.us/new-york-city/morristown+%22morristown+amish+man%22&hl=en&ct=clnk&cd=1&gl=us&client=firefox-a

but that link has it highlighted towards the bottom... unfortunately the article not current enough to access, or the link to the story is incorrect. But the first few lines are the most important. The need for interpreters in these instances isn't there... but some of the more "Amish-sympathetic" members of the justice system / community don't believe they can be fully functional in English...

Anonymous said...

roger that... didn't post it correctly because it was too long... just do a google search for "Morristown Amish Man" and click cached search...

here's the text from another source:

Amish defendant needs interpeter

"The trial of a Morristown Amish man is on hold until a state certified interpreter is found. Andy Miller went on trial in town court today, charged with building without a permit. At the start of proceedings, Miller faced a
number of questions from the judge because he wants to represent himself. However, Miller said he couldn't understand the judge's questions and asked for an interpreter. The trial was adjourned until July 19th while a
state certified interpreter in Pennsylvania Dutch is found. Several Amish men in Morristown are accused of refusing to abide by the town's building codes. An estimated 50 - 60 Amish were on hand for Thursday's proceedings."

Mr. Verb said...

Amazing. After your first comment, I quickly found a related story declaring that: "An elder in the Amish community, who speaks English, told the court of Miller's wishes and explained that Miller speaks only Pennsylvania Dutch."

I've heard it claimed a good number of times that all adult Amish speak English well. It's not hard to imagine an occasional exception, but … I'm left wondering what's what here.

Thanks much; I'll keep an eye out for stuff on this topic. Worth following up.

Aniibiish said...

I love this blog, my one regret being that topics so quickly pass off of the radar screen before I have time to react. The issue of court interpreters is not an idle one, to be sure. Much has been written on this, because many, many aspects of the legal process are affected by subjective impressions on the parts of all involved, judges, juries, attorneys, etc. I was talking with a friend just a couple of weeks ago who has been involved in many cases involving a little-known language. Recently she had to interpret for a man accused of sexual assault. During the questioning a particular English term for a female body part came up, for which there is no widely accepted term in the language of the defendant. So my friend coined a kind of euphemistic term on the spot, which the defendant laughed at when he heard it. Even though all of this took place in other-than-English, the defendant's laughter was perceived by all non-speakers of his language in the courtroom as insolent contempt for the question and its assumptions, when in fact, he was just reacting to the euphemism. This is just one tiny issue in a sea of complexities. I think too that there is a tendency to assume that people with minimal English can successfully get through litigation without help. Way too much is at stake. The popular conception of judicial proceedings is naive in the extreme. And it's one thing to have 95% of a lecture zing over your head, quite another for some miscomprehension to get you 15-20 because the crime you're accused of is on the satan list du jour and any accusation presumes guilt, such as is the case with anything involving sex.