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Consecutive vs simultaneous - does it make a difference in court?

by Sandra Hale

Have you ever wondered whether your presence as interpreter affects how the accused is perceived and/or assessed by those who are judging him or her? Or whether the mode of interpreting used affects the perceptions of those listening to your interpretation? A research team set out to find answers to these questions.

For the study, a simulation of an interpreted trial was mounted in order  to test three conditions (C1, C2 and C3):

  • C1: The interpreter sat next to the accused, interpreting consecutively.
  • C2: The interpreter sat in a booth, interpreting simultaneously.
  • C3 (monolingual; the control condition): The accused gave evidence in English without an interpreter.

The role of the court interpreter, as stated by the Commonwealth Attorney General’s Department (1991), is to place the non- English speaker in the same position as an English speaker.

The goal of the interpreter, therefore, is to interpret accurately (both content and manner of speech) in order to render the situation as close to a monolingual situation as possible. This research project set out to ascertain whether the mode of interpreting used affects the fulfilment of that goal.

The mock trial was conducted multiple times in a real courtroom, at different times of day, with a total of 447 ‘jurors’. Each juror was randomly allocated to one of the three conditions. The trial participants, including the accused and the interpreter, were played by professional actors and the dialogue was scripted.

In other words, all jurors, across all three conditions, heard exactly the same testimony from the interpreter and the accused. The interpretation languages were Spanish to English.

The main results of the study were:

1. When jurors were asked to state  how likely they were to convict the accused, there were no significant differences between the three conditions. This suggests that an accurate rendition can, as intended, place a non-English speaker in the same position as an English speaker with respect to likelihood of conviction.

2. When jurors were asked about their perceptions of the accused’s evidence (with respect to consistency, reliability and credibility), there were no significant differences between C2 (simultaneous) and C3 (monolingual), thus suggesting that in C2 the interpreter fulfilled their role as defined above. However, there were significant differences between C1 (consecutive) and C3 (monolingual), with the former eliciting a more positive perception of the accused overall.

The interpreter used in the study was well dressed and acted professionally, and it may be that in C1, in which the jurors were often visually focused on the interpreter, the positive impression that this created was projected onto the accused. (By extension, it can be posited that manipulation of other interpreter variables (age, gender and so on) might also alter jurors’ perception of the accused, and that this could conceivably affect the likelihood of conviction.) When the accused’s evidence was interpreted simultaneously, with jurors listening via headphones, they were likely to focus visually on the accused with less interruption.

3. In the afternoon, jurors in C1 (consecutive) tended to report more loss of concentration than in C2 (simultaneous), indicating that consecutive interpreting is more distracting to jurors than simultaneous.

That the study found no significant differences in the rate of conviction across the three conditions is encouraging, as this seems to indicate that when interpretation is accurate, the interpreter will not change the outcome of the case. However, the study also seems to indicate that the simultaneous mode (C2) may be preferable to the consecutive mode (C1) with respect to achieving the intended interpreter role of placing the non-English speaker in the same position as an English speaker.

The consecutive mode tended to distract jurors more and to interfere with their assessment of the accused—effects which did not occur with the simultaneous mode. However, research into the difference, if any, that mode makes to accuracy is needed before any recommendation can be made.

The research team has applied for further funding to conduct the next phase of the research, to try to ascertain whether the same level of accuracy is achieved using consecutive and simultaneous interpreting, across three typologically different languages: Arabic, Chinese and Spanish.

This research project was funded by the Australian Research Council Linkage Program 2011, Round 2 (LP110200394) and the following partner organisations:

The project was led by Professor Sandra Hale from the University of New South Wales (UNSW). The other investigators were Prof. David Tait, Dr Meredith Rossner and Assoc. Prof. Uldis Ozolins from Western Sydney University (WSU), Prof. Jane Goodman-Delahunty from Charles Sturt University (CSU), Assoc. Prof. Ludmila Stern from UNSW, Prof. Jemina Napier from Heriot-Watt University (HWU), Edinburgh, Scotland and Diane Jones from PTW Architects, Sydney.

For the full research results and more publications, click here.

Sandra Hale is Professor of Interpreting and Translation at the School of Languages and Linguistics, UNSW, and national president of AUSIT. Learn more about her here. This article first appeared in the summer 2016 edition of AUSIT's In Touch magazine and has been republished with permission.