Translators and covert recordings

Many covert recordings contain speech in languages other than English. How should this be presented to the jury? Obviously simply providing a transcript is not enough. The speech needs to be translated into English to enable the court to understand what is going on. The process is called forensic translation.

It turns out forensic translation is riven with just as many problems as transcription of indistinct English covert recordings. Indeed many recordings are both indistinct and in a foreign language, creating a double whammy of problems that the law has so far failed to address adequately. As with forensic transcription, many of the problems of forensic translation are completely under the radar, making it easy and common for inaccurate or misleading translations of covert recordings to be accepted as reliable evidence.

As well, forensic translators are often asked to do more than just translate. Most importantly, they may give evidence about the speakers’ identity – even though there is a substantial body of research that shows how unreliable this kind of evidence is. In fact, just recently there was a very disappointing Appeal Court decision in South Australia that upheld the right of translators to give speaker identification evidence – with neither the prosecution nor the defence making any reference to any scientific literature on the topic of speaker identification.

Some of these issues (and more) will be discussed at an upcoming workshop being held as part of the Australian Linguistic Society’s Annual Conference 2017, which seeks to explore common ground in instituting better practices for transcription and translation of forensic speech evidence.

It is expected that useful insights will be gained from recent very positive developments in the realm of legal interpreting. Legal interpreting is the process of translating speech in a foreign language to and from English in an open context – such as a witness giving evidence in court, or a suspect being interviewed by police. This is similar to forensic translation in some aspects, but very different in others – especially since forensic translation involves covert material that will be used as forensic evidence.

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