Language, culture and identity: performance aspects of court interpreting

Andrew Piasecki (France)
The official role of the court interpreter is to mediate in a “neutral” way between the various court actors and the subject who is unable to communicate in the language of use. In this respect, the interpreter is cast as a kind of non-person whose neutrality reduces to a minimum any kind of “noise” or interference with this primary relationship. In the case of criminal trials of accused persons, justice requires that the culturally alienated party who cannot speak or understand the language of use is given a voice and a means of understanding court discourse. However, the interpreter is an actor nonetheless, whose performance is itself a matter of interest for the court audience and the very fact that the performance takes place often reinforces the perception of the accused party’s “disability”. This applies in particular to accused persons with low social status. The interpreter’s presence and performance draws attention to the alien and alienated nature of the disenfranchised party who cannot speak and whose identity is stripped down to a few stark details of otherness: a mere name, address and place of birth in an alien land. The approach to this topic is ethnographic, inspired by the work of Erving Goffman, and is based on personal experiences of working as a court translator.
Andrew Piasecki is a translator and interpreter living in South West France. Before moving to France he worked for twenty years as an academic in the UK. His first teaching post was in the Department of Drama at Royal Holloway, University of London, where he was also a theatre director, and he later worked in the Department of Communication Studies at Queen Margaret University, Edinburgh. He has also contributed to BBC Radio as a freelance researcher and producer.