A Comparison of Simultaneous and Consecutive Interpretation in the Courtroom

by Debra Russell


This study examined the efficacy of simultaneous and consecutive interpretation used in courtroom settings by ASL/English interpreters, using both quantitative and qualitative methods. The accuracy of interpretation was evaluated by examining the work of four professional interpreters across four mock trials. Three discourse events were examined: expert witness testimony, direct evidence given by a Deaf witness and cross-examination of that same witness. First, the results indicated that consecutive interpretation was more accurate across each of the discourse events. Error rates were higher in trials using only simultaneous interpretation, and the greatest number of errors arose during the direct testimony of the Deaf witness and during the expert witness testimony. Second, it was found that simultaneous interpretation could be used effectively during cross-examination of Deaf witnesses, if consecutive interpretation was used during direct testimony. Given that cross-examination examines evidence that has already been entered, the interpreters could use simultaneous interpreting, thus allowing the communication goals of the lawyer to be realized. Third, the results showed that interpreters, Deaf consumers and agents of the court require increased awareness and exposure to the benefits of consecutive interpretation given the predominant practice of sign language interpreters has been to provide services using simultaneous interpretation. Lawyers and the judges involved in the study disliked the time involved when using consecutive interpreting, but when faced with the data regarding the accuracy of the interpretation all parties agreed the accuracy of the interpretation is paramount to the court.

The findings also reveal best practices used by interpreters when preparing legal personnel to work with interpreters, and when preparing to work as a team. The study has implications for educators of interpreters, for interpreters working in legal arena and for courts who want to ensure that Deaf people have full access to the judicial process.


During the past thirty years North America has become increasingly sensitive to the social needs and rights of linguistic minorities, resulting in major increases in the use of foreign language interpreting in North American courtrooms (Berk-Seligson, 1990). As well, recognition that native sign languages (NSLs) are legitimate languages, and that Deaf communities are cultural and linguistic minorities, has also resulted in a dramatic increase in the use of sign language interpreters in courtrooms. Despite the increase there have been few empirical studies measuring the accuracy and effectiveness of interpretation services in legal and court settings for either spoken language and sign language interpreters, even though the evaluation of interpretation accuracy is a critical issue for courts and interpreters alike. The purpose of this paper is to describe the results of a study of courtroom interpretation provided by sign language interpreters working between English and American Sign Language (ASL).

Consecutive and Simultaneous Interpretation

Interpretation processes between languages have been investigated by examining the processes of simultaneous and consecutive interpretation. Interpretation, whether performed simultaneously or consecutively, is a highly complex discourse performance where language perception, comprehension, translation and production operations are carried out virtually in parallel and under severe time pressure (Tommol, 1990). Given the complexity of the mental processes involved in interpretation, there are descriptive studies that have examined the differences between consecutive and simultaneous interpreting. Consistently, the evidence suggests that consecutive interpreting results in greater accuracy in the transmission of the message (Alexieva, 1991; Bruton, 1985; Cokely, 19992, Mikkelson, 1995). Alexieva (1991) found that the practice of simultaneous interpreting has shown that not all types of texts can be interpreted under the difficult conditions characterizing the material (e.g. simultaneity of the speaker's and interpreter's performance, speed of delivery of the source message, lack of knowledge about the context and a single rendition of the source utterance). Barnwell (1989) concurs with this view, stating that simultaneous interpretation offers little time to reflect on the linguistic choices needed for precise rendering. Bruton (1985) argues that in order for interpretation to be successful it must include the reformulating and retransmitting of concepts into the target language. Further, there is agreement within the literature that consecutive interpreting, working from memory and notes, makes it easier to break down the interpreting process and examine the skills required to cope successfully (Alexieva, 1991), Barnwell, 1989; Bruton, 1985; Mikkelson, 1995).

Until relatively recently, all interpretation used consecutive interpreting methods, but after World War II, at the Nuremberg trails in Germany, simultaneous interpreting has received much attention. Technological advances made it possible to use simultaneous interpreting in these trials. Further, a timesaving was realized because the interpreters translated the message at the same time as they heard it. Since the Nuremberg trials, simultaneous interpreting has become widespread practice.

Consecutive interpretation, in which the interpreter waits until a complete thought has been spoken and then begins interpreting is the primary form used in medical situations (Mikkelson, 1995). Consecutive interpreting allows for the conveyance of the content of the source language message, as well as critical information conveyed in the structural elements of that message that are not contained in the words: pauses, tone of voice, stress, etc.

On the surface the use of simultaneous interpretation can occur more easily for sign language interpreters because of the two different language modalities, a visual-spatial language and an auditory-temporal language. This requires no technology or equipment, and no pauses, in that the interpreter can sign while someone is speaking and speak while someone is signing without the modality of each language overlapping. This may account for the ready acceptance of simultaneous interpreting practices within the field of sign language interpreting. The question to be answered is whether simultaneous interpretation is the most appropriate choice in legal settings given the potential for grave errors.

Interpreters and Courtroom Work

The importance of accurate interpretation in legal settings appears to have been well documented (AVLIC, 1996; Cokely, 1992; Berk-Seligson, 1990; Colin & Morris, 1996). In order for Deaf people to have an equitable legal experience in the courtroom, ASL/English interpreters must possess the requisite skills and knowledge in order to perform in this complex setting. Several difficulties arise when working in courtrooms, such as the difficulty in finding lexical equivalents for complex legal terminology, the extra time that must be added to the proceedings to accommodate the interpretation process, and the lack of education among court personnel about the importance of hiring competent interpreters.

The courtroom is one of the most complex communicative settings that a layperson is likely to encounter. In the courtroom, the unusual alternation of linguistic registers ranging from formal to informal is employed within a single proceeding. To participate effectively in legal proceedings, the interpreter must be able to ideally comprehend and interpret successfully among these challenges. Lawyers and judges routinely gauge the impact of their speech, in terms of intelligibility and/or persuasiveness, on various listeners.

Morrow (1994) also found that legally educated speakers alternate all of thee ordinary English modes with the most formal register of legal English, which is characterized by jargon, complicated syntax, and features otherwise found in only in written discourse. Formal legal language frequently consists of written texts rendered orally, for example, routine jury instructions. Formal legal English differs from written and spoken forms of English lexically, syntactically, and at the level of the discourse. Interpreters must understand all of these in order to work effectively.

O'Barr (1982) and Danet (1980) identified that language used in legal processes is characterized by technical terms, common terms with uncommon meanings, words with Latin, French or Old English origins, unusual prepositional phrases, formality, vagueness and over precision. Berk-Seligson (1990) and Morrow (1994) found similar linguistic challenges, including frequent passive constructions, unusual conditional phrases, numerous negations and overly compact phrases which include a great deal of information in one sentence with little or no rephrasing. These aspects make formal legal English both dense and challenging to understand.

The adversarial nature of the legal system also dictates that lawyers use language strategically to control testimony and convince a judge and jury to a particular interpretation of the facts. Individual styles, class, age, ethnicity, and gender add further layers of communication complexity. Because formal legal English is so different from ordinary spoken English, the difficulties of interpreting it receive the most attention. However, what is probably most difficult about the interpreter's task is the need to manage the constant interplay of all of these linguistic varieties and registers in a single event (Morrow, 1994; Witter-Merithew, 1995). The presence of non-English speakers and speakers of English as a second language makes the courtroom situation even more complicated. If cultural and linguistic differences exist even among English speakers, the use of language other than English increases the potential of interpretation problems. These potentials are greatest when the languages in question, such as American Sign Language and many immigrant languages, are linguistically unrelated to English.

Interpreters, no matter how competent, bilingual, and bicultural they may be, must constantly weigh choices in search of the best ways to convey shades of meaning and speaker intent (Morrow, 1994; Smith, 1994; Witter-Merithew, 1995). They must also deal with the cultural differences that are embedded in the linguistic structures. For example, the narrative structures, the depth of detail in a description, and the social fabric of a culture that is different than the language of the majority create incredible challenges for an interpreter when attempting to convey equivalent sense so that all parties can participate equally.

Accurate interpretation in legal proceedings requires a level of language proficiency often underestimated by judges, lawyers and court officials involved in the judicial process. Inaccurate interpretation results in a lack of integrity of the judicial process (AVLIC, 1994; Berk-Seligson, 1990; Colin & Morris, 1996). For example, Berger (1996) examined the importance of interpretation accuracy in the context of Deaf people and allegations of sexual abuse. His findings uncovered that over fifty Deaf people had experienced inaccurate interpretation during legal investigations and subsequent trials, which resulted in dropped criminal charges, mistrials and false acquittals.

The current study is the first to examine the accuracy of interpretation provided by ASL/English interpreters in legal settings, and the first to include the experiences of Deaf witnesses, lawyers and judges.

Research Methods

This study consisted of a comparative analysis of simultaneous interpreting and consecutive interpreting provided by ASL/English interpreters in courtroom interactions. Three distinct courtroom events were studied: expert witness testimony, the entering of direct evidence with a Deaf witness, and cross-examination of the Deaf witness. It also explored consumer satisfaction for the two different types of interpretation.

Quasi-experimental design principles shaped the study. Specifically, the study used a factorial design, and manipulated one independent variable. Four mock trials were conducted with four ASL/English interpreters. Interpreters worked in teams of two, and participated in three courtroom events: the entering of direct evidence, the cross-examination of the witness and the entering of expert testimony. Three of the interpreters were certified and one interpreter was non-certified, however he/she had many years of experience. All the interpreters were experienced in legal settings. Other courtroom participants included judges, lawyers, an expert witness and two Deaf witnesses. The interpretation was videotaped and a sociolinguistic analysis performed on the data to determine its accuracy. All participants participated in post-trial interviews.

The Sample

A purposive approach to sampling was used. Interpreters were chosen from four provinces: British Columbia, Alberta, Manitoba and Ontario. Interpreters were chosen for the study based on the following criteria: interpreters needed to be experienced practitioners who were identified by the interpreting and Deaf communities as respected for their interpreting skills in a variety of settings, interpreters holding national certification (granted through the Association of Visual Language Interpreters of Canada) were preferred, and all interpreters must have had a minimum of 500 hours of interpreting in legal settings. Three females and one male who met the criteria were chosen, and three of the interpreters held national certification.

The judges who participated in the trials were recruited through the judicial system, and ranged in experience from three years to thirty-three years. All of the lawyers who participated in the study were recruited through the Alberta Criminal Trial Lawyers Association and through personal contacts with the Crown Prosecutors office in Southern Alberta. All lawyers had a minimum of two years courtroom experience, and represented lawyers with two years to thirty-two years of experience. Three lawyers had experience working with interpreters and the remaining six lawyers had no experience with interpreters.

The Deaf witnesses were selected based on the following criteria: used American Sign Language as their primary means of communication, regularly socialized within the Deaf community, and had worked with interpreters in a variety of settings.

Instruments: Mock Trials

The mock trials were written by the British Columbia Criminal Trial Lawyers Association and are based on actual courtroom cases. Mock trials are often used in the education of lawyers and have all of the elements of real trials. Two criminal trials were chosen, one a sexual assault charge and the other reflected an assault charge. Criminal trials were chosen for the study because the consequences of errors are gravest in a criminal trial. The trials came with fact sheets, evidence requirement and a description of the particulars. Participants were prepared for court by reviewing the materials. The interpreters received details that are standard when accepting a courtroom interpreting assignment. The lawyers prepared for the witnesses as they would in any trial, and interpreters met with the Crown Prosecutor and Defense Lawyer prior to the trials.

The trials were videotaped at the University of Calgary, Faculty of Law building using the Moot Courtroom. This room was equipped with multiple video cameras built into the walls, and a professional technician operated all of the equipment. The Moot Court closely resembles a regular courtroom and as such added to the simulation. The multiple camera angles allowed for witnesses and interpreters to be recorded, and time codes were inserted into the tapes. The tapes were copied and then the interpretation was analyzed for accuracy using a sociolinguistic model to assess the accuracy of the work.

A set of interview guides was developed to gather qualitative information on the personal experiences of the Deaf witnesses, the judges, lawyers and interpreters.

Data Analysis

Quantitative data collected on videotape was analyzed by contrasting the original messages to the target language constructions. An ASL linguist and an interpretation expert verified the analysis, Further, chi-square analysis was conducted using the linguistic data. Qualitative information was summarized and analyzed per common themes, recommendations and significant insights.

Research Findings

Interpretation Data

Trials with consecutive interpreting were significantly different from the trials using simultaneous interpreting. The consecutive mode demonstrated a greater degree of accuracy than simultaneous. The two trials that used simultaneous interpreting achieved 87% and 83% accuracy rates, while two trials that used consecutive interpreting realized a 98% and 95% accuracy rate.

In all trials the number of interpreting errors across the discourse events was greater for expert witness and direct evidence discourse events. For all four trials, there were fewer errors exhibited during cross-examination. The data were pooled and tested for significance using Chi Square Tests. Results of the error analysis per the three discourse frames were used as dependent variables, with the type of interpreting (Consecutive and Simultaneous) as the independent variable. The tests of significance suggest that the consecutive mode of interpretation is superior to the simultaneous form, when used for all three discourse samples.

The following table shows the number of interpretation errors by trial and by discourse event.

Table 1.0 Interpretation Errors by Ratio of Total Utterances by Trial and Discourse Event

Trial Number

Trial Number

Expert Witness

Direct Evidence


Trial One (S)




Trial Two (C)




Trial Three  (C)




Trial Four (S)





Note: to be read as 21 errors out of 213 utterances

There is an interpreting difference between Trial Two and Trial Three. Both trials were conducted using consecutive interpreting, however in Trial Three some unusual events took place. In each of the trials, the interpreters had agreed to split the expert witness testimony with each interpreter working approximately twenty minutes per segment. In Trial Three this did not occur. The interpreters did not switch, which resulted in the same interpreter working the entire sixty-minute segment. Despite using consecutive interpreting strategies, the interpreter began to make numerous linguistic errors after 30 minutes, which is consistent with what is known about mental and physical fatigue experienced by interpreters. The interpreter used notetaking strategies in an attempt to improve the accuracy of the work however the notetaking strategies were ineffective. The interpreter recorded verbatim the questions and answers as opposed to processing the information and dealing with it in a way that would enable the interpreter to reproduce the information in the target language.

The following table shows the total number of interpreter errors per the target language and by trial.

Table 1.1 Total Interpreting Errors Per Target Language and Trial

Discourse Event

Discourse Event

Target Language

Trial 1: S*


Trial 2: C*

Trial 3: C

Trial 4: S

Expert Witness






Direct Evidence






Direct Evidence



















Note: "S" means simultaneous interpreting and "C" means consecutive interpreting

The results also showed a greater number of errors when the target language was ASL. For many interpreters, ASL is a language they develop as their second language, after acquiring spoken English. Three out of four interpreters identified ASL as their second language, with the exception of one individual who has Deaf parents and therefore ASL was a first or native language. This feature also influenced the errors made interpreting into spoken English, in that the majority of the errors were comprehension related. When examining errors while interpreting from ASL to English, the interpreters could produce fluent English, but the message was inaccurate, resulting in a deceptive message.

Across all four trials the cross-examination discourse events showed far fewer errors than the other discourse events. This was an expected result in that the evidence had been entered via direct testimony, and cross-examination is an opportunity to refute that same evidence. The interpreters had previously interpreted the witness's evidence, so were therefore prepared for the cross-examination of the witness. There was nothing substantially new that arose during cross-examination, and hence the accuracy rate was higher across all four trails when contrasted to the other two discourse events.

The data were pooled and tested for significance using Chi Square Tests. Results of the error analysis per the three discourse frames were used as dependent variables, with the type of interpreting (Consecutive and Simultaneous) as the independent variable. The results of the Chi Square Test for all three discourse events are shown in following tables, and clearly there are significant differences, with consecutive interpreting showing higher rates of accuracy.

Table 1.2 Type of Interpretation with Accuracy of Interpretation for Expert Witness Discourse Event

Evaluation of Interpretation

Evaluation of Interpretation



Total (N)













Total N







Chi square = 20.188, df =1, p<0.001: Phi = 0.14, p<0.001

Table 1.3 Type of Interpretation with Accuracy of Interpretation for Direct Evidence Discourse Event

Evaluation of Interpretation

Evaluation of Interpretation



Total (N)













Total N







Chi square = 39.25, df =1, p<0.001: Phi = 0.25, p<0.001

Table 1.4 Type of Interpretation with Accuracy of Interpretation for Cross-Examination Discourse Event

Evaluation of Interpretation

Evaluation of Interpretation



Total (N)













Total N







Chi square = 13.55, df =1, p<0.001: Phi = 0.15, p<0.001

The tests of Significance suggest that the consecutive mode of interpretation is superior to the simultaneous form when used for all three-discourse samples.

An examination of the transcripts revealed that common patterns of errors emerged from all trials, including the following: omission of content and reduced answers for the court; shift of tense (mixing present tense for past tense); shift of register (more casual in ASL than indicated in the English source message); deceptive ASL to English messages (message was produced in fluent English, but presented inaccurate content; dysfunctional grammar when representing English to ASL messages; source language intrusions which resulted in form-based or transcoding work, and interpreter-created utterances which were not interpreted for all participants. As well, there were patterns of "hedging" in spoken English when the answer was complete and definitive in ASL, and times when the interpreters linked a previous utterances to separate utterances which resulted in an answer of "no" when the predicted response was "yes".

The interpreters sometimes generated utterances in addition to those by the lawyers, judge and witnesses. This occurred at times when the interpreters directly addressed the Deaf witness without indicating to the judge or lawyers that they were seeking clarification. There were other utterances also generated by the interpreters, which occurred when the interpreter clarified or corrected an earlier interpretation. On occasion, the interpreter clarified an answer in spoken English while the other interpreter signed the message in ASL. Conversely, there were also times when the clarification from the interpreter was in spoken English only, excluding the Deaf witness from the information.

Preparation Findings:

One of the objectives of this study was to investigate the preparation strategies of interpreters when working together as a team, when preparing lawyers about the task of working with interpreters, and when preparing with Deaf witnesses.

There were several common themes that emerged when interpreters were preparing to work with each other. The interpreters frequently reviewed how long the turns should be for each interpreter and whether they would split the interpreting process (ASL to English and English to ASL) during direct evidence and cross-examination. They also spoke of the strategies needed when supporting each other with cued information. Most often, the interpreters preferred to have information cued to them in ASL during the expert witness testimony, and in spoken English when interpreting direct evidence or cross-examination. Three teams of interpreters decided to approach the lawyers as a team, and one interpreting team chose to identify a "primary spokesperson". The interpreters focused on the information they wanted to share with lawyers, and the majority of the information related to the use of interpreters in the courtroom, specifics about signals and turntaking, and specific descriptions of interpreting in simultaneous or consecutive interpreting modes.

When analyzing the trial date it would appear the following questions may have been helpful to the teams, yet they were not part of the preparation conversations:

1. How will we handle frozen texts, such as oaths, in a consistent manner?

One of the interesting problems that occurred in Trial Four was that the two interpreters had no standard version for administering of the oath. This text is frozen text and the Deaf witness noted that they felt confused by the three renditions of the oath.

2. What specific sign choices might we need for this assignment?

This question could have led to a discussion of the specific semantic choices needed in ASL and may have reduced the incidence of source language intrusions from spoken English to ASL.

3. Have you met the witness before, and if so, what information would be helpful to me?

If one of the interpreters had met the witness (es) before, there may have been information that would assist the second interpreter in determining register, language use, topic range and target language issues.

4. What specific details of the case should we ask the lawyers to review with us?

This question could have led to further information that would have been helpful for example, getting the scope of expert witness testimony and reviewing the document that was entered as an exhibit.

When preparing with the lawyers, the interpreters reviewed their backgrounds and qualifications with lawyers, before going on to describe the nature of what they would be doing. The lawyers reported that the interpreters frequently described interpretation is technical terms that were unfamiliar to the lawyers, for example, using the term "miscue". The lawyers perceived the preparation conversations as opportunities for the interpreters to educate the lawyers, which were perceived as helpful, but the lawyers also desired an opportunity to address the interpreters. The lawyers suggested that the interpreters should have asked more content specific questions in order to get information about the trial at hand.

The expert witness is an interpreter educator who has testified many times in court and as such had a curricula vitae and standard article to submit to the court. Three of the interpreting teams approached the expert witness in order to hold a preparation conversation, while one interpreting team did not prepare with the witness. For those teams that chose to prepare with the witness, the conversations largely focused on the needs of the interpreting team. No questions were asked of the witness about the nature of their testimony and how it applied to the case. Almost all of the witness's testimony was available in text form, however the interpreters did not inquire about any available written documentation that they could review.

Notetaking Practices:

All of the interpreter participants acknowledged that they rarely use notetaking strategies and as such, were unsure how to use notes in a way that supports the delivery of accurate interpretation. One team chose to record the proper spelling of witnesses' names, make note of dates in question and draft spatial maps based on witnesses' descriptions. This type of information appeared useful in this context.

One interpreter in the study used notes during a trial employing consecutive interpreting. The notes revealed the interpreter had written verbatim what was offered in the answer or question. This did not support accurate interpretation, in that adherence to written English then meant the interpreter still had to apply a cognitive model of interpreting to the message in order to process it for meaning. This greatly increased the time span between writing down the information and presenting it in ASL. What would have been more helpful in this context would have been to use sophisticated discourse mapping techniques in order to represent and retrieve the original meaning (Winston, 1998).

Interviews with Participants:

Judges: There were several themes that emerged in the post-trial interviews, including the following: need for an orientation to interpreting and deafness, understanding the basic principles of ASL, positioning of interpreters, conferring, error correction and witness control. Some judges had prior experience working with interpreters, while others had none. All judges commented on the need to create materials that would help courts understand the basic facts about ASL, including an orientation to matters or deafness and interpreting. Judges expressed concern that errors made by interpreters were not consistently acknowledged and repaired clearly for the court. There was a prevalent misunderstanding regarding attending behaviours required in ASL, whereby the interpreters nodded affirmatively while a Deaf person was giving testimony. The behaviour is designed to give the Deaf person feedback that indicates the interpreters understand the witness, but the perception of non-signers is that this behaviour results in controlling or encouraging the witness and this is not an appropriate role for an interpreter.

Lawyers: The lawyers expressed similar themes to the judges during post-trial interviews. The lawyers were generally impressed with the skills and abilities of the interpreters but some of the lawyers were concerned that the interpreters had neglected to ask important questions about the content of the trial. Lawyers felt it was critical that they see the interpreter at all times and also see the Deaf witness. This presents some challenges in terms of establishing sight lines necessary between Deaf witnesses and interpreters, however it could be addressed in preparation conversations, so that agreements could be reached prior to commencement of a trial.

Lawyers and judges concurred when asked to examine their perceptions of interpreters conferring with one another. These participants would prefer interpreters ask permission prior to conferring with each other, and that they identify why it is necessary to do so. Error management was also a concern for lawyers, which is difficult given that the study revealed that interpreters are not always able to recognize the errors they make, nor are they consistently correcting all errors made, and judges and lawyers have no way of knowing when this is occurring in a trial.

Lawyers were also fearful that interpreters would not be able to successfully convey the affectual and emotional aspects throughout a trial, and while the interpreters in this study were able to handle this area well, this fear could have been addressed in the preparation conversation.

Finally, all lawyers expressed a preference for simultaneous interpreting because of its apparent efficiency, but gave primary value to accuracy. The lawyers commented that consecutive interpreting seemed suitable for direct evidence but that they did not like it for cross-examination, given that it changes the cadence of such an examination. They also said that during expert witness testimony the consecutive interpreting seemed to truncate the information, which could have the potential impact of lessening the testimony.

Deaf Witnesses: While Deaf witnesses concurred with many of the themes found in the interviews with lawyers and judges, they had some additional concerns, which included courtroom protocol, interpreting behaviour, notetaking practices and their personal preferences when working with ASL/English interpreters. The Deaf witnesses stressed the importance of interpreters being confident when interpreting in legal settings, and how much the interpreter's demeanor affected their comfort in the courtroom. The perceived the interpreters as competent and comfortable to work with if they produced ASL consistently, took the time to indicate who was speaking prior to delivering the interpretation, and produced meaning-based interpreting. Ironically, the Deaf witnesses agreed that the certified interpreter with the least amount of legal interpreting experience appeared to be the most confident, and consistently produced messages that made visual sense in ASL. They also observed that this same interpreter had very few instances of stopping lawyers or witnesses to seek clarification. They trusted this interpreter's work and felt confident their narrative was understood.

Both Deaf witnesses preferred simultaneous interpreting, but they also commented on how much clearer the interpreting was when the interpreters used consecutive interpreting. The Deaf participants suggested there is a need to educate the Deaf community about simultaneous and consecutive interpreting, given the dominant practice of using simultaneous interpreting. The Deaf witnesses also expressed concern about how frequently the interpreters conferred with each other. It would appear that the times when interpreters conferred were when the question was ill formed or the witness's answer was detail laden. The common theme that links the experiences of judges, lawyers and Deaf witnesses is the concern for how frequently this occurs and how little control the court seems to have over it.

The witnesses identified a strategy that worked well in the courtroom that surrounded error correction. They noted the interpreter who was interpreting from ASL to spoken English would correct an answer, and the other interpreters would sign in ASL what the first interpreter had said. This practice allowed the Deaf witness to confirm the accuracy of the answer and allowed the Deaf witness to feel a more "equal participant" in the proceedings. It also contributed to increased trust in the interpreting.

The Deaf witness stressed they were affected by the lack of professionalism within the interpreting team who worked Trial Three. They could see the interpreting quality deteriorate after twenty minutes and questioned the interpreter's decision not to switch. The Deaf witness commented that the dynamics between the team - frustration, anger, sign communication between the two interpreters was annoying to them, and caused them to feel anxious about how the interpreters would handle their upcoming testimony. It is clear that interpreters' behaviour is closely watched by Deaf witnesses and as such, affects the witnesses experience in the courtroom.

Interpreters: Overall, the interpreters recognized that the quality of their interpreting was better when they used consecutive interpreting, but consistently they said they needed to have more practice with consecutive interpreting in order to have the process go more smoothly for all participants. The interpreters also identified how they need to employ more consecutive interpreting into their regular work. There were times when the volume of information and the pace of courtroom proceedings affected all of the interpreters, who spoke of the need to just "keep up." Such is the pressure that exists in courtrooms for interpreters, and yet producing target language constructions without processing the meaning creates a scenario where Deaf witnesses cannot effectively participate in a trial. The interpreters identified that when the team was functioning effectively that contributed to successful work, but the interpreters identified that they needed further training in the areas of notetaking strategies, consecutive interpreting processes, memory work and effective preparation with participants.


This study provides descriptions of the accuracy of consecutive and simultaneous interpretation in courtroom settings. The results of this study showed statistically significant differences between the accuracy of consecutive interpreting when compared to simultaneous interpreting. It also demonstrated how discourse events, such as expert witness testimony, the entering of direct evidence, and cross-examination can influence the production of accurate interpretation.

The data underscore the importance of preparation work as a necessary step for supporting accurate interpretation, and how interpreters can broaden the scope of preparation to enhance their readiness to perform their task. As well, when preparing with lawyers, Deaf witnesses and expert witnesses, interpreters would be well advised to examine the language analogies used to describe their work, and to also inquire about the goals of the witnesses giving testimony.

As well, because notes are one strategy that can be used while providing consecutive interpreting, this study exposed a practice that does not support accurate interpreting. Namely, the direct verbatim recording of source language messages does not contribute to effective consecutive interpreting. There is a need for interpreters to listen to the source language, and decode it prior to recording the ideas and concepts in a discourse map, in order to use the time well, and reduce source language intrusions. In some interpreter education programs, these skills are learned when consecutive interpreting is taught as a foundation to successful simultaneous interpreting. Bruton (1985) and Lambert (1989) emphasized that it is through a progression of exercises aimed at teaching the interpreter to grasp, analyze, remember and then reproduce the message of the speaker that interpreters can eventually proceed to acceptable simultaneous interpretation when required or desired, and it would appear the results of this study support such processes.

The study was a comparative analysis of simultaneous interpreting and consecutive interpreting across three discourse events. The results indicate that consecutive interpreting results in greater accuracy in the transmission of the message. The results also imply that discourse events can influence when simultaneous interpretation can be successfully used, for example, some segments of expert witness testimony and for cross-examination. It was concluded that the nature of courtroom events require that interpreters know how and when to use simultaneous and consecutive interpreting in order to provide the most accurate interpretation possible to the Court.

Post-trial interviews revealed lawyers, preferred simultaneous interpreting especially during cross-examination, and judges supported the need for education about how to work effectively with Deaf participants. The implication for interpreters, lawyers, judges and Deaf participants is to examine current interpreting practices and develop and implement guidelines that support accurate interpretation, and full inclusion of Deaf people in the judicial process. The results also have implications for interpreter education programs and professional associations, in terms of identifying whether interpreters are receiving appropriate training in the use of consecutive and simultaneous interpreting, and the specific training necessary for legal environments.

Finally, this research broadens the domain of what is understood about consecutive and simultaneous interpreting when used by interpreters who are working between languages that differ in modality, namely a signed language and a spoken language. The research has now been broadened to include previously unrecognized samples of ASL/English interpreters in legal contexts.


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Submitted by

Debra Russell

E-Mail: russelldl@shaw.ca

Author Biography

Debra Russell is a certified sign language interpreter and interpreter educator. The current holder of the David Peikoff Chair of Deafness Studies at the University of Alberta, Debra received her PhD in Educational Psychology from the University of Calgary. She also has a Master's in Adult Education and Community Development. She maintains an active consulting and interpreting practice, and teaches in the Program of Sign Language Interpretation at Douglas College in New Westminister, British Columbia.


International Journal of Disability, Community & Rehabilitation
Volume 2, No. 1
ISSN 1703-3381

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