Interpreter-Mediated Interactions of the Courtroom

A Naturally Occurring Data Based Study

by Agnieszka Biernacka (Author)
©2019 Monographs 318 Pages


Court interpreting understood as services provided for court stakeholders and court’s private clients is a subdiscipline which has emerged as an area of investigation within Interpreting Studies. Although the research in court interpreting has been enjoying prominence at an international level, there are still aspects of the profession which need further analysis. This book is aimed at presenting qualitative research into court interpreting in Poland, and in particular, where the Polish-English and (to a lesser extent) Polish-Spanish language pairs are involved. The study pertains to the descriptive research into court interpreting where the interpreter is perceived as an active participant in the interaction obliged to satisfy the principles of professional ethics.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title Page
  • Copyright Page
  • Acknowledgments
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • Citability of the eBook
  • Contents
  • Abbreviations
  • Introduction
  • Part I Theoretical Background for the Research into Court Interpreting
  • 1 Court interpreting: contextualization
  • 1.1 Court interpreting within the context of community interpreting
  • 1.2 Historical dimension of court interpreting
  • 1.3 Principles of ethics in court interpreting
  • 1.4 Interpreters and the right to a fair trial: Polish perspective
  • 1.4.1 Past legislation concerning court interpreters in Poland
  • 1.4.2 The Polish Act on the Profession of Sworn Translator
  • 1.4.3 The Polish sworn translator’s code
  • 1.4.4 Professional associations of sworn translators in Poland
  • 1.4.5 Sworn translator’s training in Poland
  • 1.5 Conclusions
  • 2 Interpreters as active participants in the communicative events: literature review
  • 2.1 Ethnomethodological insights into court interpreting
  • 2.1.1 Garfinkel’s approach to interaction
  • 2.1.2 Goffman’s ritualized face–to–face interactions
  • 2.1.3 Institutional talk
  • 2.2 Shift from a conduit metaphor to active participation
  • 2.3 Visibility of the interpreter involved in the trilogue
  • 2.3.1 The interpreter’s active participation as manifested by asking and answering questions
  • 2.3.2 Additions and omissions introduced in the interpretations
  • 2.3.3 Modifications of the main speakers’ styles
  • 2.4 Conclusions
  • Part II Empirical Study of Episodes of Interpreter-Mediated Interactions in the Polish Courtroom
  • 3 Methodology and preliminary constraints in the research into interpreter-mediated courtroom talks
  • 3.1 Collecting data for qualitative research in court interpreting
  • 3.1.1 The Court’s permission
  • 3.2 Data processing for CA
  • 3.2.1 Transcribing the recordings
  • 3.2.2 Quality of the collected material
  • 3.2.3 Collected material: sample size and languages
  • 3.2.4 Data presentation
  • 3.3 Integrated research in interpreter-mediated court interactions
  • 3.3.1 Classification of the collected material according to the mechanisms in interaction
  • 3.3.2 Interpreter’s renditions and interpreter’s utterances: evolution of the model
  • 3.3.3 Integrating the results: correlation of interaction mechanisms and interpreter’s renditions
  • 3.4 Conclusions
  • 4 Interpreters as participants in the turn-taking system of courtroom talks
  • 4.1 The next speaker selected by the current speaker
  • 4.1.1 The primary party selected as the next speaker
  • 4.1.2 The interpreter selected as the next speaker
  • 4.2 The next speaker self-selects
  • 4.2.1 The interpreter self-selects
  • 4.2.2 The primary party self-selects
  • 4.3 Conclusions
  • 5 Overlaps and gaps in the interpreter-mediated interactions
  • 5.1 Overlaps
  • 5.1.1 Interpreter-included overlaps
  • 5.1.2 Interpreter-excluded overlaps
  • 5.2 Gaps
  • 5.2.1 Interpreter-created gaps
  • 5.2.2 Primary-party created gaps
  • 5.2.3 Multiple gaps
  • 5.3 Conclusions
  • 6 Adjacency pairs as components of bilingual institutional talk
  • 6.1 Counters in courtroom interactions
  • 6.1.1 Judge-created counters
  • 6.1.2 Primary party-created counters
  • 6.2 Judge-initiated preferred and dispreferred responses
  • 6.3 Upgrades
  • 6.3.1 The Judge’s assessment upgraded
  • 6.3.2 The Witness’s/Defendant’s assessment upgraded
  • 6.4 Over-answering yes-no questions
  • 6.5 Under-answering yes-no questions
  • 6.6 Same evaluation
  • 6.6.1 Lawyer-interpreter same evaluation
  • 6.6.2 Witness-interpreter same evaluation
  • 6.7 Downgrades
  • 6.7.1 Judge’s assessment downgraded
  • 6.7.2 Witness’s/Defendant’s downgraded assessment
  • 6.8 Conclusions
  • 7 Pre- and post-expansions in the interpreters’ renditions
  • 7.1 Pre-expansions
  • 7.1.1 Interpreter-created pre-expansion
  • 7.1.2 Primary party-created pre-expansion
  • 7.2 Post-expansions
  • 7.2.1 Interpreter-created post-expansions
  • 7.2.2 Primary party-created post-expansions
  • 7.3 Multiple expansions
  • 7.4 Conclusions
  • 8 Insert expansions in communicative events
  • 8.1 Post-first insert expansions
  • 8.1.1 Interpreter-created post-first insert expansions
  • 8.1.2 Primary party-created post-first insert expansions
  • 8.2 Pre-second insert expansions
  • 8.2.1 Interpreter-created pre-second insert expansions
  • 8.2.2 Primary party-created pre-second insert expansions
  • 8.3 Multiple-insert expansions
  • 8.3.1 Interpreter-created multiple-insert expansions
  • 8.3.2 Primary party-created multiple-insert expansions
  • 8.3.3 Multi-party multiple-insert expansions
  • 8.4 Conclusions
  • 9 Repairs as responses to problems in bilingual interactions
  • 9.1 Self-initiated self-repair
  • 9.1.1 Interpreter-created problem in conversation
  • 9.1.2 Primary party-created problem in conversation
  • 9.2 Self-initiated other-repair
  • 9.2.1 Interpreter-created problem in conversation
  • 9.3 Other-initiated self-repair
  • 9.3.1 Interpreter-created problem in conversation
  • 9.3.2 Primary party-created problem in conversation
  • 9.4 Other-initiated other-repair
  • 9.4.1 Interpreter-created problem in conversation
  • 9.5 Conclusions
  • 10 Discussion on the results and recommendations for further research
  • Bibliography
  • Index


Court interpreting understood as services provided for court stakeholders (institutional clients) and the court’s private clients (brought before the court by those) seeking justice is a subdiscipline which has emerged, as other varieties of public service interpreting, or dialogue interpreting, and independently of conference interpreting, as a separate area of investigation within Interpreting Studies (Pöchhacker 2001, 2012, 2015; Tryuk 2004, 2006). Despite the key importance of the interpreters’ assistance in the courtroom as guarantors of the right to a fair trial, as well as the legal provisions and the ethical principles that are in force on them – as is the reality in the case of Polish court interpreters, the services rendered before the courts are still underestimated. As Repa indicates, court interpreting is “the Cinderella of interpretation: an unglamorous girl […]” (1991: 595), while court interpreters do not enjoy a high reputation of the profession, and their services are unappreciated, both prestigiously and economically (Hale 2007: 108; Katschinka 2013: 9; Biernacka 2014a: 49). This, along with the highly reduced availability of research data, contributes to the still scarce research into court interpreting as compared to other types of interpreting. According to Hale, “[m];uch of what is written or said on the topic […] is of a very prescriptive or anecdotal nature, rarely based on empirical evidence” (2004: xv). This, certainly, deepens the stereotypes of court interpreting as shrouded in secrecy and wreathed in aura of mystery, and of court interpreters as in-betweens who cannot be trusted. As Colin and Morris state, “[…] many people who work in legal settings (…) treat interpreters with suspicion, distrust and a lack of respect for the skills which they bring to the job” (1996: 15). Hence, a non-party approach (Berk-Seligson 1990/2002; Morris 1995; Mason and Stewart 2001) is postulated through the studies promoting interpretation as a text-based activity, and court interpreters as text producers; de Jongh emphasizes the need to “standardize equivalent foreign language terms” (1992: 117) while Poznański (2007) points out the necessity to work out glossaries of legal terms. Such an approach may be a consequence of ignoring the fact that court interpreters are entitled to occupy a certain physical place; thus, their activities are reduced to the functions perceived as either non-existing, somebody or something supposedly present in the interaction between main speakers but that actually retains invisible presence (Apostolou 2009; Torikai 2009), or “a polyglot who is also an automatic language converter” (Gentile, Ozolins, and Vasilakakos 1996: 65).

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As pointed out by the scholars who regard court interpreters as more than text producers, there is a huge discrepancy between such an understanding of an act of communication with the participation of an interpreter and the reality. As Gentile, Ozolins, and Vasilakakos put it, “a gulf exists between reality and the perception of the interpreter’s clients” (1996: 65). Thus, in accordance with the wish expressed by Harris of the need to discuss such indicators of the interpreting profession as “accreditation, training, remuneration, research” (1995: 2), the 1990s witnessed the flourishing of the descriptive trend in studying community interpreting in all settings, including courts (although the research in court interpreting in line with the prescriptive tradition has been continued).

While the research in court interpreting has been enjoying prominence at an international level, there are still areas which need discovering. As Wadensjö indicates, “there is still much to explore concerning institutional interaction, and not least when it comes to the peculiarities and particularities of dialogue interpreting” (2012: xi). When it comes to the Polish bilingual courtroom, scholarly studies concerning court interpreters are far from being able to give a comprehensive perspective on the subject as regards both Polish courts and Polish as one of the languages of the pair. Apart from the studies based on recommendations regarding professional issues (Jopek-Bosiacka 2006, 2010, 2014; Kierzkowska 2007/2008; Kościałkowska-Okońska 2010; Matulewska 2014), there are only a few (Biernacka 2008a, 2008b, 2009, 2010a, 2010b, 2014a, 2014b, 2016; Nartowska 2013a, 2013b, 2015; Stawecka 2010; Tryuk 2010), which form part of the empirical path marked out by the scholars contributing to the First Critical Link Conference in 1995 who integrated court interpreting analysis to community interpreting studies, as well as further works within public service interpreting.

This book is aimed at fulfilling the neglected area of qualitative research into court interpreting in Poland, and in particular, where the Polish-English and Polish-Spanish (to a lesser extent and mainly for illustrative purposes) language pairs are involved.

This study pertains to the descriptive research into court interpreting where the interpreter is perceived as an active participant in the interaction (Roberts 1997: 13–14). As Wadensjö puts it, “[i];f we look at interpreting as interaction, (…), it is evident that interpreter-mediated talk forms a particular type of encounter, with its own specific organizational principles” (1997: 203). Such an approach, where the interpreter is considered “as a third interlocutor” (Gentile, Ozolins, and Vasilakakos 1996: 31) within the bilingual communicative events (“courtroom triadic exchanges”, Kang 1998; “triadic speech events”, Jacobsen 2008), has its roots in the sociological theory of interaction (Garfinkel 1967, ←18 | 19→Goffman 1956, 1967), according to which all interactants, even though involved in symmetrical and asymmetrical relationships (Goffman 1967), cooperate in order to maintain the communicative act.

The product-oriented, small-scale qualitative study, based on naturally occurring, “recorded spoken data” (Dörnyei 2007: 19), is a logical consequence of the adopted ethnomethodological paradigm fueled by interactions taking place at institutional communicative settings. The material for the Conversation Analysis (CA) of the interpreter-mediated interactions, obtained during a seven-month search query conducted between December 2013 and June 2014 at the Civil and Economic Divisions of the Regional Court in Warsaw, Poland, constitutes bilateral real-world communicative events (“real-life interpreter-mediated encounters”, Wadensjö 1995: 50), in which court interpreters working with Polish-English and Polish-Spanish language pairs assisted.

On the assumption that the interpreters leave their footprint on bilingual interactions of the courtroom, the research questions of this study are as follows:

(1)  How do the interpreters1 interact with primary parties (the court stakeholders or the court’s private clients) at the level of the communicative act?

(a) is it the primary parties who make the interpreters submit to the mechanisms of interaction, or

(b) is it the interpreters who impose an order of the interaction on the original speakers?

(c) is a question-rendition-answer-rendition pattern of bilingual interaction (understood as the one, in which after each primary party’s turn the interpreter speaks to render the original utterance) followed, or are any irregularities detected as regards the turn-taking system according to which the interactants change?

(2) What renditions of the original utterances produced by primary speakers provided by the interpreters can be identified?

(3) In what way can these renditions be considered as manifestations of complying, on the part of the interpreters, with the ethical principles of accuracy and impartiality required in the bilingual communicative events of the courtroom?

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(4) What patterns in deploying interpreting techniques, depending on a particular interaction mechanism to which the interpreter is a component, can be observed?

The book encompasses two parts. Part I provides insights into a theoretical background for the research into court interpreting and includes two chapters. Chapter 1 contextualizes court interpreting. First, it describes this variety of interpreting within community, or, public service interpreting, and discusses the principles of ethics as one of the crucial characteristics of the profession; furthermore, it focuses on the Polish perspective: legal and ethical framework, historical issues affecting the profession at present, as well as challenges faced to make court interpreting a full-fledged profession. Chapter 2 reviews the ethnomethodological paradigm developed by Garfinkel (1967) and Goffman (1967) as applied in the studies concerning court interpreting, specifies the features of institutional talk (IT) in interaction, and presents the findings of scholarly investigations conducted thus far in the field of court interpreting understood as interpreter-mediated institutional talks. Part II comprises an empirical study of episodes of interpreter-mediated interaction in the Polish courtroom. Chapter 3 concentrates on methodology: collecting data for qualitative research into court interpreting, data processing for CA, as well as presents a proposal for integrating the CA of interpreter-mediated court interactions with the study of the interpreters’ renditions. Chapter 4 analyzes the turn-taking system in the interpreter-mediated talks, where the interactants are selected by the current speaker, but also self-select to speak. Chapter 5 focuses on the interpreter’s (non-)participation in the gap and overlap mechanisms, the former being perceived as opportunities for the interpreter to talk, and the latter as considerable obstacles to performing interpreting responsibilities. Chapter 6 is devoted to adjacency pairs as those components of bilingual interactions, which enable the active participation of the interpreters. Chapter 7 aims at investigating pre- and post-expansions in bilingual communicative acts, and Chapter 8 presents insert-expansions at institutional talk of the courtroom; both concentrate on the interpreters’ inclusion in these mechanisms. Chapter 9 analyzes repairs as responses to problems in bilingual interactions. It is in Chapter 10 where the overall results of the analyses performed in the empirical part of this book are discussed and re-contextualized within previous scholarly research. Moreover, this final chapter puts forward recommendations for further research into court interpreting.

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1 Throughout the entire book, for the purposes of this study, after Jacobsen, “an interpreter is referred to as she, and any other participant as he, unless specifically identified as female” (2003: 236).

1 Court interpreting: contextualization

Court interpreters render their services in the courtroom. Apart from being the “oral interpretation of speech from one language to another” (Edwards 1995: xv), and not the translation of documents issued by the court, as well as taking place in a particular setting, court interpreting (Hale 2004; Gamal 2009: 63) or courtroom interpreting is characterized by “complex ritualized interaction and power hierarchies” (Morris: 2015: 91). Another term, legal interpreting, is also applied to refer to the interpretation before the court, nonetheless, it is a broader concept than court interpreting; according to Hertog, legal interpreting is carried out through the entire legal procedure (2016). In the same vein, ISO/DIS 20228 Interpreting services – Legal interpreting – Requirements (under development)2, the document prepared by the International Organization for Standardization in order to establish standards of legal interpreting, proposes that this cover all law-related settings. Furthermore, the term tribunal interpreting is used, but limited to refer to interpreting done for the needs of ad hoc international courts to judge war criminals (Takeda 2015: 424).

1.1 Court interpreting within the context of community interpreting

Court interpreting is contextualized within oral communication, but further allocating to either community or legal interpreting is problematic.

Pursuant to ISO 13611:2014 Interpreting – Guidelines for community interpreting3, a document establishing the criteria and recommendations for community interpreting, the term also includes court interpreting. On the one hand, the document defines community interpreting as the one that enables access, inter alia, to services provided at police stations, courts and prisons, but on the other hand it respects a national context of different countries, where court interpreting can be considered a separate variety of interpreting.


ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2019 (March)
court interpreting communicative event Conversation Analysis qualitative research ethics
Berlin, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Warszawa, Wien, 2019. 316 pp., 26 tables, 54 graphs

Biographical notes

Agnieszka Biernacka (Author)

Agnieszka Biernacka is a legal translator and interpreter, court interpreting researcher and trainer at the Institute of Applied Linguistics, University of Warsaw, Poland, as well as author of a monography on court interpreting and of papers on court interpreting and legal translation. She also is a member of several professional organizations (PSH, AESLA, EST).


Title: Interpreter-Mediated Interactions of the Courtroom
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