Dateline: June, 2011, Issue 4

How do interpreters affect the credibility of witnesses?

Many trials are conducted with courtroom interpretation of testimony.

Berk-Seligson (1987) analyzed 2,470 answers by 27 Spanish-speaking witnesses as interpreted into English by six interpreters to determine if the interpreter's rendition conveyed a different impression of the witness from the one originally conveyed by the witness testifying in Spanish. Interpreters systematically increased the average number of words per statement of Spanish testimony when rendering it in English because they added hedges ("I guess so"), linguistic material perceived to be understood in the original testimony, uncontracted forms ("can not"), polite forms of address ("Sir"), and hesitation forms ("well...", "uh...").

Berk-Seligson (1990) explored whether interpreters' lengthening of answers and rendering with insertions affected jurors' perceptions of the credibility of Spanish-speaking witnesses. Four types of interpreter insertions were studied: politeness, hyperformality, hedging, and active versus passive voice. For each type of interpreter insertion, jurors heard either a recording of an interpreter of a Spanish-speaking witness adding the insertion, or the same interpreter rendering the same testimony without the insertion.

Jurors' perceptions of the credibility of the Spanish-speaking witness depended not only on the use of insertions by the interpreter, but also on jurors' own ethnicity:

In sum, some interpreter insertions benefit, while others detract from, a witness's credibility. Interpreters' insertions of hesitations and passive voice when rendering Spanish language testimony in English negatively affect jurors' perceptions of a witness's credibility, especially for non-Hispanic jurors; insertions of politeness and hyperformality positively affect jurors' perceptions of a witness's credibility, again especially for non-Hispanic jurors. Thus, jurors' perceptions of a witness's credibility are influenced both by the insertions an interpreter uses when rendering Spanish-spoken testimony in English and by jurors' own ethnicity.

Source Berk-Seligson, S. (1987). The intersection of testimony styles in interpreted judicial proceedings: Pragmatic alterations in Spanish testimony. Linguistics, 25, pp. 1087-1125.

Source Berk-Seligson, S. (1990). The bilingual courtroom: Court interpreters in the judicial process. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.