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Voicing the evidence : the pragmatic power of interpreters in trial testimony

Click to view the dissertation via Digital dissertation consortium
Author Freedgood, Laura Anne.
ISBN/ISSN 0493202005
Broad Subject Language and linguistics
Summary In a trial involving non-English speakers, the interpreter is responsible for accurately rendering the testimony of non-native-speaking witnesses into English and, correspondingly, the language of the court into the language of the witness. This dissertation addresses one aspect of the interpreter's task. Considering a set of 10 pragmatic markers such as report markers (e.g., he said), the study discusses the causes of interpreter alterations and the effect of these alterations on the pragmatic meaning of lawyer questions and witness answers.

The data for this study came from audio and videotapes of 6 trials covering 15 hours of testimony and involving 8 Spanish-speaking witnesses and 9 interpreters. Separate transcripts of the lawyer-witness colloquies were made for each trial and verified for accuracy by a bilingual Spanish-English speaker. The transcripts were analyzed for the presence of one or more of the 10 pragmatic markers, for whether they were added, deleted or substituted, and for whether the alteration occurred in the witness answer, the lawyer question, in direct examination, or in cross examination.

There were a number of potentially significant findings. First, interpreters added uncertainty markers (e.g., umm) 158 times out of a total of 278 alterations to these markers, thereby altering the pragmatic meaning of the answer by conveying uncertainty on the part of the witness. Second, the addition of uncertainty markers made answers vulnerable to exclusion under evidentiary rules such as The Uncertainty Rule, potentially resulting in testimony being ruled inadmissible. Interpreters also added evidential markers (e.g., I guess) to witness answers 17 times out of a total of 30 alterations to these markers, thus altering the pragmatic meaning of the original utterance by suggesting witnesses lacked confidence in theirtestimony. At the same time, the addition of evidential markers made answers vulnerable to exclusion under The Opinion Rule, potentially resulting in testimony being ruled inadmissible. Such findings suggest that alterations to pragmatic markers have the potential to distort the lawyer-witness exchange, possibly affecting the witness' credibility and denying due process to non-native English speakers.

Language English
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