Intercultural translation of vague legal language: The right to silence in the Northern Territory of Australia

Alex Bowen
ARDS Aboriginal Corporation | The University of Melbourne

Abstract

Difficulties have long been observed in communicating legal rights to some Aboriginal people in Australia. In the Northern Territory, audio translations of the right to silence in Aboriginal languages can be used in police interviews. This study examines two sets of audio translations in two Aboriginal languages. Also included in each case are front-translations – intermediate English texts used to facilitate translation – as well as the legal texts that likely informed the translations. The audio translations include far more explicit information than either legal texts of the right, or oral explanations from police (evidenced in transcripts from police interviews). Analyses of context and implicature highlight that the legal text of the right is indeterminate: It is unclear what the text is intended to imply and communicate. Aboriginal translators are better placed than legal communicators to develop informative texts, because of their audience knowledge and intercultural skill. However, translators can only work with meaning provided or approved by their clients. Legal authorities, not translators, should be responsible for deciding the information to be communicated about rights, to meet the objectives of policies about rights. When the challenging and imperfect nature of intercultural legal translation is recognised, translators can use their insight into legal meaning to greatly improve communication with target audiences.

Keywords
Publication history
Table of contents

Police interviews with suspects are an important step in gathering evidence about crimes. In Australia, police are generally required to inform suspects before an interview of their right to remain silent, also called ‘cautioning’. This study examines recorded translations that are designed to communicate this caution to Aboriginal suspects in the Northern Territory of Australia (NT) at the start of a police interview.

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