Jacobsen, B. (2012) The significance of interpreting modes for question-answer dialogues in court interpreting

Jacobsen, B. (2012) The significance of interpreting modes for question-answer dialogues in court interpreting. Interpreting 14:2.

Jacobsen surveyed Danish court interpreters to find out what modes they employ in the courtroom.  The article includes an overview of the court-interpreting-scene in Denmark.  Of note, court interpreters do not have simul equipment, and the courtrooms are very crowded.  Both authorized and unauthorized interpreters work in Danish courts, and the author explains what both of these denominators mean in concrete terms.

A short case analysis and discussion clearly demonstrate the issues she identifies with the use of whispered simul for questions and answers in the courtroom. In the case analyzed, the interpreter’s renditions simultaneous were barely audible, and often cut off.   When interrupted by another speaker, the interpreter failed to proactively manage the flow of communication, and thus some portions of original statements were never interpreted.  In courtroom settings, the interpretation into the language of the court (in this case, Danish) serves as the official record–therefore, audibility of the interpretation and completeness of the interpretation into the language of record are of paramount importance.  The author identifies these types of behaviors as highly problematic.

In reporting on the Danish legal framework for court interpreting, she points out that no mode is mandated, but that a document of recommendations produced by the Danish Court Administration seems to imply that consecutive interpreting is perceived as more accurate (and therefore preferred) except in the case of interpretations from Danish into other languages and of closing arguments.  This recommendation seems to me to be in line with practice in US courts, and discussed by Mikkelson in her article on the subject, although Jacobsen mentions (and finds problematic) the fact that the official recommendations seem to imply that some information may be summarized by the interpreter.

In order to explore the modes that interpreters actually employ in court, the author surveyed interpreters. The survey results indicate that interpreters generally use a wide range of modes, including whispered simul, and that many interpreters are disinclined or not able to take notes so as to do long consec.

A cautionary note for interpreters also comes up here: the author mentions some cases of unethical behavior on the part of interpreters (breaking confidentiality) which has led to growing mistrust of interpreters within the court system, and therefore has made it more difficult for interpreters to get access to necessary documents to prepare beforehand.  She does not mention the details of these cases, but it would be interesting to find out more about them.

From the conclusions section (p. 236-7):

“In other words, what is at stake here is not only the relative accuracy of the two modes or their relative advantages for question–answer dialogues in a legal setting. Rather, the issue must also be seen as relating to the potential consequences for the production of evidence and trial outcomes when, with the blessings of courts, court interpreters adopt interpreting strategies that run the risk of information being lost.”


“An obvious lesson for interpreter trainers is that training programmes need to put greater emphasis on the potential consequences of choosing one mode over another. ”


“However, it must be emphasized that no amount of training and/or exams will compensate for a lack of comprehension and respect on the part of courts for the role of the court interpreter. When judges and lawyers regard court interpreters as a necessary evil and leave them to their own devices, the interpreters will be tempted to avoid techniques that they consider complicated or those which they see as liable to prolong the trial or to make the interpreter appear obtrusive. Using untrained or non-authorized interpreters exacerbates this situation by strengthening the impression that court interpreters are not fully competent professionals.”