The parallel world of forensic translating and interpreting

Phonetics is not the only branch of linguistics (the science of language) that confronts problems caused by false beliefs entrenched in the law as part of ‘common knowledge’.

The topic of translating and interpreting in legal contexts has many similarities to forensic transcription. Many of the issues are caused by what is often known as the ‘conduit metaphor’.

The conduit metaphor

The conduit metaphor sees spoken communication as a process in which the speaker packages up some meaning into a message and sends it through the airwaves to the listener, who unpacks the message to retrieve the original content – very much in the way we write our thoughts into a letter and send it through the post to a reader, who opens the envelope to see the very message we wrote.

It seems like a reasonable way to think about communication – until you actually look into it. Anyone who has studied language and communication beyond elementary levels is well aware of the many failings of the conduit metaphor as a model of spoken communication.

‘Common knowledge’

And yet our legal system bases many important practices on this view – not least decisions as to who needs a translator or interpreter when, and how the process should be managed.

Many linguists have been active in providing information and advice on these matters, especially in promoting the idea that translation is a simple mechanical task of transliterating the ‘message’ of the conduit metaphor.

There have been some notable improvements in individual cases and in particular jurisdictions. Indeed it is fair to say Australia is a world leader in this field. Nevertheless there remains far too little general understanding of the issues among lawyers, and the efforts of linguists often a receive disappointing response – as in the recent case of Aifang Ye in the USA.

I hope to write up some more detail when time permits. In the meantime here are a few links for those interested in these topics – and especially in contextualising issues in forensic transcription in the broader field of linguistics.

Thanks to colleagues on the FORENSIC-LINGUISTICS DISCUSSION LIST for thoughtful and well-informed discussion of these (and many other!) issues.

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