Interpreting accent in the courtroom

Sandra Hale, Nigel Bond and Jeanna Sutton

Findings from research conducted into interpreted court proceedings have suggested that it is the interpreters’ rendition that the judiciary and jurors hear and upon which they base their evaluations of witnesses’ testimony. Previous research into the effect of foreign accent of witnesses indicated particular foreign accents negatively influence mock jurors’ evaluations of the testimony. The aim of this study was to examine the effect of interpreters’ foreign accents on the evaluation of witnesses’ testimony. Contrary to previous research, our results indicated that participants rated the witness more favourably when testimony was interpreted by an interpreter with a foreign language accent. Accented versions were all rated as more credible, honest, trustworthy and persuasive than the non-accented versions. This paper discusses the findings in the light of methodological concerns and limitations, and highlights the need for further research in the area.

Table of contents

Research into interpreted court proceedings has shown that witnesses who speak through interpreters are evaluated on the way interpreters render their utterances (Berk-Seligson 1990/2002, 1999; Fraser and Freedgood 1999; Hale, 2001; Hale 2002; Hale 2004; Kolb and Pöchhacker 2009; Rigney 1999). In other words, it is the interpreter’s rendition that becomes the evidence that judicial officers and jurors hear and upon which they base their evaluations of that testimony. Interpreter competence in the court setting ranges from the highly competent to the barely bilingual. Much has been written about the need for highly trained, specialised court interpreters to minimise any avoidable influences that interpreters may cause (Hale 2010; Martinsen and Dubslaff 2010; Morris 2008). However, while issues of accuracy of content and style of the original can be addressed by training, [ p. 49 ]there may be other issues that can potentially influence fact finders’ evaluations of witnesses that have little or nothing to do with interpreter competence. These include factors such as gender, appearance, or accent—factors that have not yet been explored. This paper will deal with one of those: the influence of foreign accent on the evaluation of interpreted testimony.

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