Hyperformality, Politeness Markers and Vulgarity*
by Zsuzsanna Ardó
How do you feel about saying four-letter words in public?
When do you translate bastard as bastard and when do you replace it with a euphemism? Do you retain Your Honour on each and every occurrence? Just how vulgar and how polite can you—or rather should you—strive to be while interpreting in a court of law? When does correct become hypercorrect, and how correct is hypercorrect? How do you deal with garbled and muddy questions and answers?
Do you have the courage to render muddy and garbled as such or you clean up the mess as you interpret? What is the difference between dismissal with prejudice and dismissal without prejudice, cross-claim and cross-examination, writ of habeas corpus and writ of mandamus? Who is Miranda and what has she got to do with the Miranda Warnings—and what are these warnings anyway? Can you switch sides during the same case and what are the major courtroom do's and don'ts? Should you simplify the text to be interpreted to accommodate an accused with limited verbal skills? Can you interpret during pretrial preparation and then continue working on the same case in higher courts?
These are some of the linguistic and ethical issues explored by Constance Emerson Crooker in The Art of Legal Interpretation: A Guide for Court Interpreters published by Portland State University (1996). Crooker is 'crook' only by name, not by nature: in fact, she is a bilingual criminal defence lawyer (English/Spanish) with over 19 years of experience, and teaches legal seminars for lawyers and interpreters.
The guide includes chapters on determining dual language proficiency, legal terminology, courtroom procedures, methods of oral interpretation, frequent errors during interpretation and their effects, interpreter ethics, qualifications and administrative and financial issues, such as the not altogether insignificant question as to who pays the interpreter.
But The Art of Legal Interpretation does not end here. Indeed, a just-as-chunky part of the book is titled Appendices, which includes no fewer than 19 entries such as a glossary of legal terms, and excerpts from interpreter statutes. The glossary gives succinct explanations of legal terms most, but not all, of the time. For example, it does not only explain the legal principle often referred to in Latin as Res ipsa loquitor—the thing speaks for itself—but illustrates it as well with the example of a barrel falling on, say, your head from a warehouse window. Even though you did not see who did it, somebody must have been negligent that is to say the res ipsa loquitor principle applies.
However, explanations are not half as satisfying for the reader at other times. For example, probation is explained clearly enough, but parole is simply dispensed with as a system of post-prison supervision of former inmates, not unlike probation. The reader is left with questions, such as in what ways then is parole different from probation, if at all?
The chapter on Interpreter Statutes you may find relevant but only if you are also interested in the state of affairs in the United States, and especially in the State of Oregon. Hence the book is, arguably, quite parochial. This is not necessarily a crime in and by itself, I hear you say. It can, in principle, meet some local need. And it does. But the title and the subtitle are somewhat misleading since there is no indication of the self-imposed limitations of the book in either of them.
The glossary is based on American English: for example, it explains supreme court as In Oregon, the highest state court. In the federal courts, the highest court in the land. Clearly, the primary focus is on the State of Oregon, and then 'the land' i.e. the US. There is no attempt made to cross-reference the material with relevant terms 'outside the land' i.e. there is no mention of crown court. This will certainly seem like a pity for many readers outside the US. But what seems like a faux pas is that there is no indication of the limitations of usage. The last item in the book, the bibliography, also focuses on American literature, but was made with an eye to Spanish speakers: it includes Spanish entries, dictionaries, software, networks.
Notwithstanding its undeclared limitations, the Art of Legal Interpreting may be very helpful for you if you are, or planning to be, engaged in customs, prison and court interpreting in particular, and public service interpreting in general. The chapter on the most frequent errors during legal interpretation is a good read and offers clear and straightforward explanations of many issues, such as untranslated side conversations, correcting speaker's mistakes, seeking clarification, correcting interpreter's mistakes, switching from first person to third person, linguistic coercion, additions and deletions, switching active and passive verbs, adding hyperformality, adding or deleting politeness markers, softening slang and vulgarity, adaptation, altering demeanor of witness, and yielding to inappropriate requests from the judge or lawyers.
The chapter on Interpreter Ethics raises and illustrates some important issues about accuracy, bias, and conflict of interest. For example: have you ever wondered if, having worked for the law enforcement agency, you can serve as a court interpreter in the same case, say in the higher courts of law? Well, the answer is no and yes. No, because there may be an appearance of bias. Yes, because it is just that, the appearance of bias and not more —that is to say if the premise is, as indeed it should be, that interpreting is a profession. I for one would tend to agree with the author of the book: the decision is best left to the judge's discretion.
*First published by the TJ Vol 6 No 2 2002.
The Art of Legal Interpretation
By Constance Emerson Crooker, Attorney
Continuing Education Press, Portland State University 1996 pp. 138
ISBN 0 87678 116 4