The mediated voice: A discursive study of interpreter-mediated closing statements in Chinese criminal trials

Biyu (Jade) Du

This article examines how the voices of trial participants are mediated by court interpreters. The research focuses on closing statements articulated by defendants in Chinese criminal trials, the last chance for their voices to be heard prior to sentencing. Drawing upon the concept of voice and theories of speech acts and pragmatic equivalence, and based on the discourse analysis of seven authentic trial recordings, this study reveals how the discursive performance of the defendant is constructed, altered, and sometimes undermined through interpreting. The findings reveal that speech acts performed by the defendant are often not maintained in the interpreted renditions and that the concept of closing statements is difficult to convey. It is argued that when interpreters fail to convey the pragmatic force of defendants’ utterances, the voice of the defendants is not fully heard, which places them at a disadvantage and impacts upon their right to equality and justice. The article also reveals system-bound constraints on the effective provision of language assistance and the safeguarding of defendants’ legal rights.

Publication history
Table of contents

In the common-law system, closing arguments (sometimes called ‘closing statements’ or ‘closing speeches’) take place during the final stage of the adversarial trial and involve both prosecutors and defence attorneys, who, subsequent to the examination of witnesses, give a summary of their arguments with the intention of persuading the decision-maker to accept their version of the facts and rule in their favour. In the inquisitorial trial of the Chinese criminal courtroom, there exists something similar to the closing argument: the closing statement (最后陈述 zuihou chenshu ‘last statement’), which is given at the end of the trial. Unlike common-law practice in which both sides have the opportunity to make final arguments, in the Chinese context only the defence parties are entitled to these final words. Thus, it is usually defendants themselves, rather than their lawyers, who are given the opportunity to present the closing statement in front of judges. As one of the key stages of the legal proceedings, the closing statement is a final chance for defendants to have their voices heard. To communicate their propositions effectively requires defendants to speak with adequate linguistic competence. When they are unable to speak the language of the court, the defendants’ voice is often communicated to trial participants through an interpreter, a procedural right laid down in Article 9 of China’s 2012 Criminal Procedure Law (CPL).

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