The Bilingual Courtroom: Court Interpreters in the Judicial Process

University of Chicago Press
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Drawing on more than one hundred hours of taped recordings of Spanish/English court proceedings in federal, state, and municipal courts—along with extensive psycholinguistic research using translated testimony and mock jurors—Susan Berk-Seligson's seminal book presents a systematic study of court interpreters, and raises some alarming, vitally important concerns: contrary to the assumption that interpreters do not affect the contents of court proceedings, they could potentially make the difference between a defendant being found guilty or innocent of a crime.
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About the author

Susan Berk-Seligson is an associate professor of Hispanic linguistics at the University of Pittsburgh.
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University of Chicago Press
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Published on
Apr 13, 2012
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Language Arts & Disciplines / Translating & Interpreting
Law / Civil Procedure
Law / General
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Eligible for Family Library

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The book presents a discourse analysis of police interrogations involving U.S. Hispanic suspects accused of crimes. The study is unique in that it concentrates on interrogations involving suspects whose first language is not English and police officers who have a rudimentary knowledge of Spanish. It examines the pitfalls of using police officers as interpreters at custodial interrogations.
Using an interactional sociolinguistic discourse analytical approach, the book offers a microlinguistic examination of interrogations involving persons accused of murder, child molestation, and kidnapping. Communication difficulties are shown to arise from suspects' limited proficiency in English and police officers' equally limited proficiency in Spanish, coupled with the unwillingness of these officers to remain in interpreter footing. The volume demonstrates how pidginization and asymmetrical communicative accommodation can emerge in such situations of highly unequal power relations. It also demonstrates how cultural factors such as acquiescence to interlocutors of greater authority and higher socioeconomic status can lead persons of certain Latin American backgrounds to engage in "gratuitous concurrence", answering "yes" to police questions even when it is clear that that these yes-tokens are not truly affirmative responses to those questions. In addition, the book provides evidence of the kinds of abuse that can result from police interrogations that are not electronically recorded.
Coerced Confessions reviews appellate cases involving police interpreters spanning a thirty-four-year period, and concludes that the Miranda rights are placed in jeopardy when a police officer is assigned the role of interpreter at a custodial interrogation.
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