From the classroom to the courtroom

From the classroom to the courtroom: A guide to interpreting in the U.S. justice system. By Elena M. de Jongh. (American translators association scholarly monograph series.) Amsterdam: John Benjamins, 2012. Pp. 237. ISBN 9789027231949. $49.95.

Reviewed by Mark J. Elson, University of Virginia

Its title notwithstanding, this book is not, in any significant way, about translation, interpretation, or language. The preface describes it accurately as ‘a road map to the complex proceedings of the United States justice system’, stating that ‘its central aim is to provide interpreters with essential information about pretrial, trial, and post-judgment processes’ (xix). The book focuses on English/Spanish court proceedings. With no explanation, the author includes a disclaimer to the effect that ‘matters pertaining to interpretation theory, bilingualism, forensic linguistics, sociolinguistics or discourse theory must necessarily remain outside the limits of this guide’ (xxii). That is, all areas that are relevant to language, and therefore potentially to interpretation, are beyond its scope, which seems difficult to justify given the book’s topic.

The absence of attention to matters of language becomes particularly noticeable in the context of the self-assessment form provided by the author (44). How is one to assess criteria such as use of appropriate grammatical structures, use of appropriate register, or no unwarranted omissions, without reference to some conceptualization and application of grammatical phenomena? The answer remains unclear, as it does in the use of the lexicon of Spanish terms provided as an appendix (165–81). When multiple Spanish renderings are given for a single English item, are we to assume that they are identical in both their denotative and connotative values? If they are not, how do they differ, and how does the difference correlate with legal usage?

With regard to the subject matter that the book does cover, it fares well. The body of the book comprises three parts, each divided into chapters, as follows: court interpreting and due process (3–20); overview of the courts (21–36); pretrial proceedings (37–78); trials (79–150); and sentences and post-trial proceedings (151–62). As a procedural guide, it is excellent, clear, and explicit in its presentation.

Perhaps the most language-oriented information is in the first chapter, where we find discussion of a defendant’s right to a linguistic presence in the courtroom, the need to know the difference between legal English and ordinary English, the difference between translation and interpretation, the modes of interpretation (i.e. simultaneous, consecutive, and sight), and, finally, the qualifications of a court interpreter (12–17).

The modes of interpretation play an important role in the exercises, each of which instructs the student to interpret sample excerpts in one of the modes, for example, the instruction to interpret jury instructions in the simultaneous mode (141). However, the author offers only brief and general discussion of each mode, which is regrettable but unavoidable in view of the exclusion from consideration of grammatical matters as they relate to interpretation.

Readers will find this book useful and of high quality as a guide to legal and courtroom procedure. They will not, I think, find it enlightening in its treatment of courtroom interpretation as such. Competence in courtroom interpretation is not simply a matter of procedure, however important that may be, but also a matter of the extent to which the interpreter functions successfully as the interface between two languages, and that is a linguistic matter.