Interpreting criminal justice: a preliminary look at language, law and crime in Ireland

AuthorKate Waterhouse
PositionB.A. Applied Languages (DCU), LL.M. International Human Rights Law (NUIG), Ph.D. Candidate, School of Social Work and Social Policy and National Policy Impacts Research Programme, Trinity Immigration Initiative, Trinity College Dublin. Supervisor Dr. Eoin O'Sullivan
Judicial Studies Institute Journal [2009:2
Language, law and crime are connected in basic ways: law
exists through words and is made possible by language, which is
a basic human characteristic; crime is part of the human
condition, and communication constitutes a vital part of the
criminal process, which is made up of language events from
beginning to end. Some of these events include encounters with
the police, testimony at trial, legislation making specific speech
acts illegal and so on.1
The language and behaviour used by professionals within
the criminal justice system is not always easy to understand for
the average layperson, partly because such people have spent
entire working lives “immersed in the complexities of the law”,2
but also because the language of law is a product of tradition and
uses grammatical features and archaic expressions that are far
removed from the English of everyday life. Lawyers and judges
usually spend large amounts of time engaged in linguistic analysis
like interpreting legislation, and thus tend to be excellent
* B.A. Applied Languages (DCU), LL.M. International Human Rights Law
(NUIG), Ph.D. Candidate, School of Social Work and Social Policy and
National Policy Impacts Research Programme, Trinity Immigration Initiative,
Trinity College Dublin. Supervisor Dr. Eoin O’Sullivan. Contact
1 See e.g. Solan and Tiersma, Speaking of Crime: the Language of Criminal
Justice (University of Chicago Press, 2005); Tiersma, “The Judge as Linguist”
(1993) 27 Loyola of Los Angeles Law Review 269, Storey, “The Linguistic
Rights of Non-English Speaking Suspects, Witnesses, Victims and
Defendants” in Kibbee (ed.), Language Legislation and Linguistic Rights (John
Benjamins Publishing Company, 1998).
2 Mikkelson, Introduction to Court Interpreting (Manchester, 2000), p.106.
2009] Language, Law and Crime in Ireland 43
language users.3 In fact language is sometimes considered the
primary manipulative tool of a lawyer, and one that can be used in
the courtroom as a weapon to achieve desired ends; to suggest,
mislead, annoy or obtain an advantage over less sophisticated
users of language.4 Sophisticated use of language does not,
however, correspond to understanding the mechanics underlying
language or its function in particular situations and cultures.5
For Tiersma, this may partly explain why courts can possess
“surprising linguistic acumen”, while at the same time exhibiting
“woeful disregard for how language operates in real life
situations”, and why judgments on language issues tend to be
Linguistic and socio-cultural barriers are even more
difficult to penetrate for those with a different language and
culture from that of the criminal justice system; Goodrich
considers that legal doctrine takes an “explicitly exclusory stance
... toward all other linguistic communities and usages”.7
The Supreme Court in the US has described as “meaningless”,8
“incomprehensible ritual”,9 “invective against an insensible
object”,10 “guarantee[d] confusion”11 and “Kafka-like”12 the
application of criminal justice to those without fluency in English,
yet interpreters are increasingly needed in the courtroom;
multiculturalism, modern communication, and international
borders increasingly being crossed by criminals, prohibited
3 Tiersma, “The Judge as Linguist” (n.1 above).
4 Eades, “Evidence Given in Unequivocal Terms: Gaining Consent of
Aboriginal Young People in Court”, in Cotterill (ed.), Language in the Legal
Process (Palgrave Macmillan, 2002).
5 Solan and Tiersma, Speaking of Crime (n. 1 above).
6 Tiersma, “The Judge as Linguist” (n. 1 above).
7 Goodrich, Legal discourse: studies in linguistics, rhetoric and legal analysis
(Macmillan, 1987), pp. 435-6.
8 State v. Fa’afiti, 54 Haw. 637, 513 P.2d 697 (1973).
9 United States v. Carrion, 488 F.2d 12, 14 (1st Cir.1973), cert. denied, 416
U.S. 907 (1974).
10 State v. Rios, 12 Ariz. 143, 144 539 P.2d 900, 901 (1975).
11 United States v. Mayans, 17 F.3d 1174, 1179-80 (9th Cir. 1994).
12 United States v. Desist, 384 F.2d 889, 901-02 (2d Cir.1967), aff’d, 394 U.S.
244 (1969). In Kafka’s The Trial, Josef K, an innocent man, is arrested, tried,
charged and punished without understanding the procedures involved or how
to defend himself.
Judicial Studies Institute Journal [2009:2
substances and people (immigrants, refugees, tourists), combine
to create a space where crimes can be committed and justice
systems need to react in an increasing range of languages.13
A. Introduction to Interpreting in Ireland
“Come, come – English. Swear him to know whether he does not
understand English. Can you speak English, fellow?”
“Not a word, plase your honour.”14
Taken from the Irish novel The Collegians, the scene is an
early 19th century Irish court in which Phil Naughten, an Irish
speaker, effectively feigns ignorance of English and frustrates the
court with his halting words and simple demeanour, a reflection
of what seems to have been a reality in Irish courts.
In documenting the murder trial of five members of a family in
Maamtrasna, Co. Mayo, Waldron describes how one of the key
witnesses used the “well-known ploy in courtrooms” of not
answering when asked if he spoke English. According to Waldron
“[m]any non-English speakers could understand it adequately, but
to think out their replies while the interpreter was translating, they
feigned total ignorance”.15
In Hickey’s exploration of Irish-speaking peasants in the
colonial courtroom, she identifies two contrasting portrayals; one,
as above, the devious local, familiar with the language, law and
procedure of the courtroom but pleading ignorance. The other is
the downtrodden peasant of Irish nationalist history and literature,
oppressed by laws of which he was ignorant, and suffering the
“crippling handicap” of lacking fluency in the English
13 Storey, “The Linguistic Rights of Non-English Speaking Suspects,
tives on Language Legislation (Benjamin Publishers, 1998).
and hanged for the murder, though many still believe
Witnesses, Victims and Defendants” in Kibbee (ed.), Legal and Linguistic
14 Griffin, The Collegians, A Tale of Garrowen (Dublin: James Duffy, 1857),
p. 403.
15 Myles Joyce was tried
him to be innocent: Waldron, Maamtrasna: The Murders and the Mystery
(Edmund Burke, 1992).

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