Danny Wang[1], Lynn Grant2
AUT University, Auckland
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This article will report on the findings of a study on common lexical and discursive challenges, including terminology, tag questions, and speech styles, frequently encountered by court interpreters in New Zealand. Previous studies carried out by overseas researchers suggest that faithful reproduction of the linguistic features is crucial to the fidelity of court interpreting, but those nuances were often neglected by court interpreting practitioners (Berk-Seligson, 2002; González, Vásquez, & Mikkelson, 2012; Hale, 2004). However, little information can be found in the literature about New Zealand’s court interpreting practice, let alone about how to address relevant challenges through education. Plausible explanations for the lack of investigation include the following: (a) Court interpreter education is relatively new to New Zealand. Not until 1998 did New Zealand start to offer formal legal interpreter education programs at the tertiary education level (Crezee, 2009). As a result, in-depth research reflection of court interpreter programs has yet to develop. (b) Court interpreting, as a research subject, has not attracted enough attention due to a lack of awareness of its importance. The current study employed an online survey involving 30 court interpreting practitioners as respondents, followed by one-on-one interviews with 11 court interpreters, in order to identify court interpreting issues that can be addressed by interpreter education.
Although M?ori, English, and New Zealand Sign Language are all recognized as official languages in New Zealand, English is the primary language of public life, including in the court of law. However, not everyone in New Zealand is able to use English to communicate. For example, the New Zealand 2013 Census (Statistics New Zealand, 2013b) showed that there were 87,534 people who were not able to have a conversation about everyday things in English. Between 2006 and 2013, the number of limited English proficient (LEP) individuals in New Zealand increased from 81,939 to 87,534 (Statistics New Zealand, 2013a). The most common languages spoken by Limited English Proficient (LEP) individuals were Chinese languages (including Mandarin, Cantonese, and Wu), followed by Samoan and Te Reo M?ori. In addition, LEP individuals may not be familiar with the New Zealand court system, which is based on the Westminster system. However, the court interpreting service is utilized in New Zealand to ensure LEP individuals’ equal rights to justice.

History of New Zealand Court Interpreting Studies

As noted, the court interpreting service is of great importance in terms of ensuring the LEP individuals’ equal access to legal services. However, there is a need to investigate more closely how, and how well, this is done. For example, the Supreme Court judgment Abdula v The Queen SC 18/2010 [2011] NZSC (New Zealand Supreme Court) 130 revealed the fact that the New Zealand court interpreting service may have a few issues that need to be addressed. As yet there has not been enough research on this (Shin, 2013), which was the motivation for the current study. In New Zealand, only a few news reports can be found related to challenges for court interpreters. Morrison (1996) reported on two issues: abandonment of a court case due to poor and biased interpreting in Auckland, and court interpreters’ discontent with their remuneration in Wellington. Another news report indicated the absence of “a register of trained interpreters” (Pierson, 1997). Palmer (2006) reported a growing demand for highly qualified court interpreters along with “a greater awareness of the importance of using people who are trained, rather than family members and friends” (p. A19).
Although these news reports provide a brief overview of some challenges of court interpreting, it is impossible to systematically identify what problems interpreters face in New Zealand courtrooms without an in-depth analysis of empirical data. This is crucial if we are to work toward resolving these serious problems. The aim of the study reported on here was therefore to identify potential problems faced by court interpreters in New Zealand and provide possible resolutions to these issues, in an attempt to improve interpreter education and ongoing professional development. The study design drew on relevant research studies carried out in other English-speaking countries, such as the United Kingdom, Australia, America and Canada, given the fact that these countries share a considerable amount in both “legal tradition” (Mikkelson, 1998, p. 24) and “lawyer system” (Phelan, 2001, pp. 29–30).

Linguistic Challenges for Court Interpreters

One of the most frequent challenges for court interpreters can be the terminological precision of legal language, because legal terms differ from everyday English (Hale, 2007a). According to Mellinkoff (1963), courtroom language can be dated back to its origins of Anglo-Saxon, Latin, and French. He points out that court language is largely inaccessible to lay people due to its wordiness, lack of clarity, pompousness, and dullness. Other than legal language, court interpreters must have a wide range of vocabulary from a variety of domains, such as forensic pathology, chemistry, and narcotics, in case any relevant expert witnesses speak about these issues in the court (González et al., 2012).
Beyond the level of the lexicon, the court interpreter also faces a number of discursive challenges. Berk-Seligson’s (2002) analysis of hundreds of hours of courtroom interpreting data suggests that interpreters are also actively engaged in influencing the illocutionary act in the discourse process. Hale’s (2004) study of court interpreting in Australia revealed that interpreting tag questions can be problematic for court interpreters. In English, the major types of tag questions are formed by a statement with a tag question appended (e.g., Isn’t that right?). A rising tone of the tag indicates a genuine question, whereas a falling tone has coercive illocutionary force and is widely used in cross-examination (Quirk, Greenbaum, Leech, & Svartvik, 1985). Hale found that interpreters omitted the tag question in their interpreting over 50% of the time, which she suggests can change the illocutionary act of the original discourse (2004, p. 44). Hale’s (2007b) article presents a clear example of this. She describes how the Counsel asked: “You’re making all this up, / aren’t you?” However, the Spanish interpreter omitted the tag (“aren’t you”) and interpreted it into a flat tone statement, which diminished the illocutionary force of accusation (2007b, p. 199). Crezee, Burn and Gailani (2015) found similar issues in their study of student court interpreters. It is of interest to see whether practicing New Zealand court interpreters are also aware of this issue.
Maintaining speech style can be another challenge for court interpreters. Generally speaking, the level of formality of the language used in court can range from informal to formal (Hale, 2007a, p. 66). Whereas the judge tends to use formal language, the witness or defendant is more likely to use an informal style. O’Barr (1982) found that lawyers are adept at manipulating linguistic styles to serve different purposes, such as enhancing their own credibility and discrediting hostile witnesses. Hence, in order to maximally maintain the fidelity of participants involved in court settings, prerequisites for court interpreting should include the ability to “manipulate registers from the most formal varieties to the most casual varieties” (González et al., 2012, p. 20). However, Hale (2004) noted that court interpreters tended to alter stylistic features in a number of ways. When interpreting into English, for example, interpreters were inclined to raise the register, copying the lawyer’s style, whereas when interpreting into the other language, they were found to often lower the register, copying the witness’s style. The current study sought to ascertain if court interpreters in New Zealand are aware of the importance of maintaining the speaker’s speech styles, because this would be relevant for the training of interpreters.

Data and Methodology

The current study utilized an online survey followed by semi-structured interviews. Semi-structured interviews are widely used in applied linguistics because they enable the researcher to strike a balance between some level of control and the flexibility to follow up on relevant topics that arise (Nunan, 1992). Semi-structured interviews also promote a healthy balance of both the researcher’s and participants’ points of view (Weerakkody, 2009). In the semi-structured interviews conducted here, the interviewer also went through the survey questions with the interviewees to check if they wanted to add or clarify anything. The 30 survey respondents and the 11 interview participants involved in this study were both recruited from the New Zealand Society of Translators and Interpreters (NZSTI) website online users’ forum. Only affiliate or full members of NZSTI have a login and can get access to this forum. Participants’ confidentiality was ensured because the survey respondents did not have to identify themselves, and in the interviews they were identified by a code.


Summary of Survey Findings

Interpreters were asked to select as many challenges encountered at work as possible, and to click on a five degree Likert-type range of options from –never to often to indicate its frequency. During the data analysis stage, responses were converted into numbers, where 1 = never and 5 = often.
Participants were asked about lexical challenges. Survey results revealed that the respondents’ average ratings were (in descending order): legal terminology (2.86), terminology in domains other than legal (2.45), and tag questions (2.37). Frequency of the respondents’ encountering of each challenge is shown in Figure 1 below:
Figure 1: Frequency of Encountering Legal Terminology Challenges
Figure 1: Frequency of Encountering Legal Terminology Challenges
 The majority of the court interpreters thought that legal terminology at times is “sometimes” a problem while at other times is “hardly ever” challenging. A total of 28 respondents answered this question; two respondents did not offer a reply. Among those who answered this question, almost 40% said that they sometimes found legal terminology hard to interpret. More than 30% of the respondents said that they hardly ever found legal terminology challenging. Overall, then, legal terminology caused a few problems to interpreters about 40% of the time but caused more problems to interpreters about 60% of the time. The next figure shows the challenges of encountering terminology in other domains.
Figure 2: Encountering Challenges of Terminology in Other Domains
Encountering Challenges of Terminology in Other Domains
Figure 2 shows similar results to Figure 1. A total of 29 respondents answered this question; one respondent skipped it. Ten respondents (34.48%) chose sometimes with another nine (31.03%) choosing hardly ever to indicate the frequency. Five other interpreters (17.24%) said that they never found it challenging to interpret terminology in other domains. Overall, then, whereas half the respondents did not find dealing with terminology in other domains a challenge, the other half found that it was, which is another finding that interpreter education should take into consideration.
Figure 3: Encountering Tag Question Challenges
Encountering Tag Question Challenges
In response to the difficulty of tag questions, all respondents answered this question. One third (33.33%) said that sometimes these were difficult to interpret, whereas another third (30.00%) never found it hard at all. Half of the remaining third “hardly ever” found them challenging. If we combine the sometimes with those who rated being challenged by tag questions “regularly” and “often,” it adds up to half the group, so again this is a finding that those involved in interpreter education should consider.

Summary of Interview Findings

All interview data was transcribed verbatim, without grammatical corrections so as to convey participants’ voices as authentically as possible.

Lexical Challenges

The interview data revealed that the interviewees were aware of linguistic issues at the lexical level. When asked about the challenges they encountered in court interpreting, 10 of the 11 interviewees raised issues about legal terminology, although they either had been through training or had a great deal of interpreting experience. As one interpreter said,

You have to expect jargon, and to be spot-on. (Interpreter 7)

Another interpreter pointed out that knowledge of this legal jargon requires proper training and effort, and is not something that others are familiar with:

Even though you live in New Zealand for a long time, unless you…the courtroom interpreting is a very specialized area. My experience with other New Zealand people or those who were born, grew up, educated with a degree, they are not familiar with court terminology. (Interpreter 1)

This interpreter also reported that even though she had learnt legal terminology from studying a Certificate in Advanced Interpreting at university level, this training had not covered every single item of legal jargon interpreters might encounter. The continual emergence of new legal jargon means court interpreters need to keep themselves updated. Another interpreter commented:

You can never be prepared. The biggest challenge for me is to interpret new words of court terminology. You always get surprised. (Interpreter 8)

Another participant found that small claims tribunals, which are known as “disputes tribunals” in New Zealand, were ideal settings for him to gain experience, as a lead-up to undertaking court assignments. He said:

I picked up legal terminology from disputes tribunals. Many of these referees are lawyers or someone with legal background. So I got used to their vocabulary. Since the setting is less formal than courtroom, I felt not so pressured and thus picked up things very quickly. (Interpreter 5)

With regard to terminology in areas other than the legal domain, interviewees discussed vocabulary in healthcare settings and business fields. Four of the 11 interviewees reported that they found this jargon challenging when it arose in court interpreting assignments. Two interpreters reported that they found medical terminology sometimes even more difficult than legal terminology:

A few of the cases actually had some medical, you know, they were interviewing doctors as well, so the courtroom vocabulary, and also some health vocabulary. That’s one of the more difficult part. (Interpreter 8)

There’re some psychiatric patients who are reviewed in the parole, there’re some words we really need to paraphrase and to really explain in detail. So we have to stop the judge or the board and explain to the client. (Interpreter 7)

Unsurprisingly, interpreters reported to be more comfortable with terms arising in fields that they were familiar with:

I actually have financial things coming into the cases, which to me it helps that I have a background. But it took years to get my master’s and whatever I did. So it kind of helps a bit more behind you. But also obviously you start with whatever you have. And it takes years. Somehow you get it easier. (Interpreter 3)

Because I was a teacher and I teach, well, business subjects…so I’m familiarized with the terminology. (Interpreter 9)

Well, be honest with you, because of medical background and I was a doctor here already, which gives me an advantage, so in a way […] that’s not the hardest part for me, because the vocabulary is there. (Interpreter 4)

However, simple substitution of lexical equivalents in the target language does not necessarily equal interpreting fidelity in the court setting. Apart from vocabulary, aspects of speech such as style and speech acts used in court should also be taken into consideration. As Hale highlighted (2004), court interpreters must maintain fidelity of the illocutionary intent of the original utterance. That is, court interpreters must capture all the nuances of the original text and faithfully reflect them in the target text, conveying not only content but also style. Seven of 11 interviewees raised discourse-related issues in their interviews, suggesting that they might have some awareness of the challenges of discursive issues.

Discursive Challenges

Five interpreters reported that registers of language vary among speakers of different professions, ages and status. One noted that it is important for the rendition to reflect the register used by the speaker, because language choices can reflect the speaker’s background and demonstrate fidelity maintenance beyond just content:

The interpreter should be very accurate and convey all the nuances, and the tone of voice as much as possible. Educational level can indicate the level of words he might choose. Their professions also decide what kind of jargon they might use. You have to expect that. (Interpreter 1)

Another interpreter commented on lawyers’ use of register:

The lawyers tend to speak in their different level of English. That makes it difficult to interpret. (Interpreter 8)

Despite these comments, interview data suggests that most of the participants were not fully aware of discourse issues in interpreting. Some participants admitted that they would change the speech style of the original utterance to better suit the listener’s educational background. They reported that they would choose to explain concepts in detail to the client rather than use the equivalent legal terminology, if they judged that the client would not understand the high register of the source text. Yet Hale (2004) has argued the importance of maintaining the speech style of the speakers.

If you are in the court, I don’t need to literally translate the equivalent of legal terminology in [language] because the client won’t understand it anyway because of its language. But I can explain it. (Interpreter 4)

Part of the challenge is that most of the time the defendant, if you interpret it at the same level to your language, they may not understand it. Sometimes if you translate a technical English word into a technical [language] word, they would say: ‘What’s that?’ Because they don’t understand the technical terms in [language]. (Interpreter 8)

It should be noted that register alterations happen not only in the case of translating into a language other than English, but also in the case of translating into English. The comment made by Interpreter 9 suggests that she saw the altering of a legal lay person’s word into a legal jargon in English as evidence of her being professional. Her comment is presented here:

I did sight translation which didn’t use any legal terminology, going: ‘I’ve been driving for 25 years and haven’t done anything against the law.’ So I interpreted it into English, going: ‘I’ve been driving for 25 years and haven’t violated any traffic offences’. If you don’t understand the legal terminology, you wouldn’t use ‘violated’ or ‘traffic offences’. When we know police language, we can better convey the meaning since we are speaking the same language. Usually people wouldn’t use these words, but we interpreters know how to convey the meaning with these words.

From the comments of Interpreter 4, Interpreter 8 and Interpreter 9 above, it appears that register alteration in interpreter-mediated court cases occurs in both language directions, with interpreters believing that they could sacrifice the speaker’s speech style for the listener’s better understanding.
Apart from speech styles, pragmatics is of great importance for court interpreting at the discourse level. As outlined in the literature review, court interpreters may misinterpret the illocutionary act of tag questions (Hale, 2004). Although none of the interviewees said that they found tag questions challenging, the results showed that some of them might not be fully aware of the difficulty. Nine of the 11 interviewees simply said that they did not find it difficult without any further comments. However, two interpreters said that they would choose to interpret tag questions into genuine questions:

If the defense counsel asks these questions, you can translate it into: ‘Have you or not ever been there?’ in [language]. I don’t think this would be difficult. I know what the speaker means, then I express it in [language]. So you must understand the function of these English expressions. I don’t think it’s too difficult to translate tag questions from English into [language]. I was trying to convert tag questions into [language] which [nationality] speakers can understand. Word-for-word translations is something they can’t understand. (Interpreter 9)

I don’t find tag questions difficult. As long as you got the meaning correct, it’s easy. It doesn’t really matter the way they put their tag questions. You only need to interpret it into a question. (Interpreter 5)

Interpreters may not be aware of the function and implication of tag questions; if they are at all, as these two were, they may only recognize tag questions’ propositional content. This problem mirrors that of an earlier study (Hale, 2004). Hale’s (2007b) article presents a clear example of this, as mentioned previously. Authentic (real life) data from New Zealand’s contexts is needed to explore this more fully; interviewees’ recollection and self-report may not reliably reflect what actually occurs when they interpret tag questions onsite.

Implications for Interpreter Education

Survey and interview findings indicate that New Zealand court interpreters may face similar lexical and discursive challenges to those reflected in the literature, such as terminology and discursive issues. In addition, the lack of insight into the importance of register and discourse issues suggests that interpreters would benefit by having additional training.
Among all the linguistic challenges, survey participants considered legal terminology the most significant. Interview data revealed that court interpreters see legal terms as difficult because they are greatly different from everyday English, supporting the findings of Mellinkoff (1963) and Hale (2007a). Interviewees highlighted the fact that they have to deal with new legal terms ad hoc,even though they may have studied legal terminology in pre-service interpreter education programs. This issue clearly cannot be entirely addressed by pre-service training; instead, it requires that interpreters undertake ongoing professional development to keep current in new legal terminology.
Terminology in areas other than the legal domain was rated the second most challenging linguistic issue. The interview data mirrors previous findings in that court interpreters should have knowledge of medical terminology (González et al., 2012): interviewees mentioned encountering medical doctors and psychiatric patients speaking in court using medical terminology. They also indicated that business and finance terms can be encountered in the court setting, and previous knowledge or experience in these areas can be invaluable when it comes to understanding and conveying these technical terms.
Beyond the lexical level, interpreters face discursive challenges, and it seems that interpreters may not be fully aware of the complexity of tag questions. Similar to Hale’s finding (2004), an interview participant admitted that she would omit the tag and change any tag questions into genuine questions. As a result, the illocutionary act of the original tag question may be altered in the interpreter’s rendition. A limitation of this study is that it relies on self-reported data, so further investigation is needed to establish if this misconception of tag questions is widespread. Also, it is of interest to see how explicit teaching around tag questions could be incorporated into current interpreter education programs, especially within the New Zealand tertiary institutional scenario.
The maintenance of speech style was highlighted as another challenge for court interpreters at the discursive level. When interpreting into English for legal professionals, informal language was more likely to be changed into formal language; when interpreting into the language other than English for LEP individuals, formal English was more likely to be changed into informal language. The interviewees’ justification for their speech style alteration was to better facilitate the communication process. This finding supports earlier research on speech style alteration in court interpreting by Hale (2004) and González et al. (2012). It might be worth investigating how to enhance student interpreters’ stylistic awareness in interpreter education programs, because in court cases not only the content of but also the style of the utterance is crucial to the speaker’s credibility.
As for interpreter education, both the survey and interview demographics indicate that the participation of interpreters in training programs in New Zealand at the tertiary level was reasonably high. A total of 75.86% of the survey participants and 81.82% of the interview participants had joined or were then undergoing one or more interpreting training programs. In contrast to other countries lacking adequate training programs (Niska, 2005; Straker & Watts, 2003), modularized interpreter education programs from undergraduate to postgraduate level have been established in New Zealand. Similarly, whereas the literature describes a lack of requirements for compulsory training programs (Hale, 2007a), the New Zealand authorities have instituted requirements. For example, an inquiry to NZSTI (email, 14 July 2014) suggests that the New Zealand Ministry of Justice was aiming to reach a point where they would only use trained interpreters recognized by the NZSTI, although currently there are still some unqualified or only partially qualified interpreters on the court interpreting service list, because it takes time to introduce new requirements for using trained interpreters.
On the other hand, the current research did identify some problems in New Zealand interpreter education programs. Similar to what was described in the literature (González et al., 2012; Hale, 2004; Shin, 2013), New Zealand interpreter education is facing confusion caused by professional accreditation bodies, such as the Australian National Accreditation Authority of Translators and Interpreters (NAATI). NAATI is accepted by professional New Zealand interpreter organizations, such as NZSTI, as an equivalent to pre-service training programs, despite the fact that NAATI has been criticized for over 20 years for its ineffectiveness to accredit court interpreters. According to Hale (2004), as generalist accreditations, a NAATI test “does not conduct any special examination for legal interpreters” (p. 26). Our survey respondents’ rating for NAATI tests were lower than those for any other tertiary education programs. One of our interviewees said:

NAATI as a test doesn’t provide anything. But [New Zealand tertiary institution] gives you the background of the industry […] and gives you practice, and, you know, examines you as well. So it’s much, much better. Just sitting NAATI exam is not enough. You have to get a qualification and do the practice. (Interpreter 4)

In addition, New Zealand interpreter education programs reflected features of short duration and a lack of in-depth academic insights. None of the survey respondents had obtained a bachelor’s degree in interpreting; rather, they had all joined or were then undertaking certificate/diploma/graduate diploma courses. The only two respondents taking postgraduate level courses were both specializing in translation. Interview data also suggests that some participants lacked an understanding of interpreting issues such as speech styles and tag questions. Within a short period of pre-service training at the undergraduate/graduate level, it is very unlikely for student interpreters to acquire an adequate knowledge other than specialized terminology so as to accurately reproduce discursive nuances. This issue was also reflected in earlier research of Schweda Nicholson (1994) and Ko (1995). Nevertheless, inquiry with a New Zealand tertiary institution (email, 18 July 2014) confirmed that a 3-year bachelor’s degree program that incorporates legal interpreting courses has just become available. It is hoped that the modularized curriculum design of New Zealand interpreter education programs may attract those interpreting certificate/diploma holders to upgrade their qualifications.
Apart from pre-service interpreter education programs, ongoing professional development is of great importance to court interpreters. The online survey of the current research suggests that the most frequently used professional development methods of New Zealand court interpreters were: “Reading reports on court hearings in the newspaper either online or in print”, “court observation”, “using Internet resources such as search engines, question boards, forums and websites”, and “Attending seminars and conferences for interpreter professionals”. These methods largely overlap with suggestions made by González et al. (1991). In addition, it should be noted that three methods were highlighted by interviewees in the current study: court observation, supervision for monitoring and assistance, and tape recordings of court case interpreting to be used in interpreter training.
The interview participants highly recommended court observation as part of not only preservice training, but also ongoing professional development. Through observation, novice interpreters can familiarize themselves with the court order in different court settings. Two interviewees shared their experiences of going to observe court interpreters working in countries other than New Zealand and said that it gave them new perspectives on court interpreting. Moreover, both the interviewees and the literature had suggested a supervisory interpreter onsite for monitoring and assistance purposes. Experienced interpreters working in the same language pair would be desirable candidates for this supervisory interpreter position.

Conclusion and Recommendations

This article reports on the findings of a research study into challenges faced by court interpreters in New Zealand, based on survey and interview results. The study found that court interpreters were aware of the terminological challenges encountered at work, but lacked insight into discursive issues such as tag questions and speech styles. Interpreters may not fully understand the illocutionary act of tag questions, thus choosing to omit the tag in their rendition. Also, they were more likely to tailor the speaker’s speech style to what they perceived to be the listener’s comprehension level, rather than reproduce the original speech style in their interpreting. The lack of understanding of these discursive issues might be due to the relatively short duration of their certificate and diploma programs. However, New Zealand is establishing standards by requiring that courts use only NZSTI-trained interpreters; the NAATI accreditation system alone neither includes nor mandates any specialized pre-service court interpreting training.
It is recommended that court interpreters engage in ongoing professional development to improve their skills and keep current with new terminology. Court interpreters may consider getting support from their professional community through court observation, attending seminars and conferences, and communicating with other interpreter practitioners. Court interpreters, who are based in not only New Zealand but also other countries, may also benefit from working with court interpreting recordings as well as communicating with court interpreters in other countries, to problem-solve using combined experience in this community of practice.


We are grateful to all the New Zealand court interpreters who participated in this study.


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Appendix A: Interview Questions

Indicative Questions for Semi-structured Interviews with Court Interpreters

  1. How would you describe your experience as a court interpreter in terms of years, number of cases?
  2. What sort of training did you have before you started interpreting in your very first case?
  3. How prepared did you feel? Please explain why?
  4. Is there anything you felt could have been included in the training that could have served to better prepare you for the realities of court interpreting? If so, please explain.
  5. What challenges have you encountered in courtroom interpreting? Please describe.
  6. What types of on-going development do you feel would help you to improve on your courtroom interpreting expertise?

[1] Correspondence to: dannywang@outlook.co.nz
2 Correspondence to: lynn.grant@aut.ac.nz