Walking a fine line – The legal system and sign language interpreters

Roles and responsibilities

  • Jemina Napier Heriot-Watt University
  • Karin Banna University of New South Wales
Keywords: applied sign linguistics, discourse of responsibility, interpreter role, legal interpreting, sign language


Legal interpreting as an applied linguistic activity has been explored in the literature, with various explorations of the role of legal interpreters from a discourse perspective. Current thinking in interpreting studies classifies the role of the interpreter as a participant in interaction and co-constructor of meaning. Sign language interpreting as a professional practice typically occurs in legal contexts where the deaf person is the complainant, defendant or witness. However, recent research has begun to explore the provision of sign language interpreting for deaf jurors. Drawing on a corpus of 12 qualitative interviews, and with reference to frameworks of discourse and responsibility, this paper presents analyses of perceptions from two key stakeholder groups - sign language interpreters and lawyers - on the level of professional responsibility that each stakeholder feels that sign language interpreters need to adopt in the legal setting, and their perceptions of the role and responsibilities of sign language interpreters in this context. This study reveals that the legal and moral boundaries of meaning attributed to interpreters' responsibilities are blurred, yet both stakeholder groups have their own clear perceptions of the duties attached to the interpreter's position in court. Thus interpreters need to walk a fine line in how they manage their role and responsibilities according to interpreting studies theory while meeting the linguistic needs of their deaf clients in court and adhering to their responsibilities as perceived by the justice system.

Author Biographies

Jemina Napier, Heriot-Watt University

Jemina Napier gained her PhD in Linguistics from Macquarie University in Sydney, where she was mentored by Christopher Candlin in her early research career. After 15 years at Macquarie, where she established the PG Diploma/MA in Auslan/English Interpreting and then became Head of the Translation and Interpreting program, Jemina took up the position of Chair of Intercultural Communication in the Department of Languages & Intercultural Studies at Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh. Jemina has almost 30 years experience as a sign language interpreter practitioner. Her major research interest is in applied sign linguistics, and specifically sign language interpreting and translation.

Karin Banna, University of New South Wales

Karin Banna has been involved in the Australian Deaf community since 19XX, and became accredited with the National Accreditation Authority for Translators and Interpreters (NAATI) as an Auslan/English interpreter at Paraprofessional level in 19XX. She later studied the MA in Auslan/English Interpreting at Macquarie University, which led to her Professional level interpreter accreditation achievement in 20XX. Karin also completed a PG Certificate in Linguistics Research at Macquarie University, and was supervised by Jemina Napier. Karin still works occasionally as a sign language interpreter.


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How to Cite
Napier, J., & Banna, K. (2018). Walking a fine line – The legal system and sign language interpreters. Journal of Applied Linguistics and Professional Practice, 13(1-3), 233-253. https://doi.org/10.1558/japl.31859