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Scales of Justice: Legal Ramifications for Sign Language Interpreters

Traditional roles, responsibilities, and accountability for work product were challenged in a 2016 court case which will affect the work of sign language interpreters moving forward, particularly in legal settings.

Scales of Justice: Legal Ramifications for Sign Language Interpreters

On January 27, 2016, the Court of Special Appeals for the State of Maryland filed a ruling that affects the work we do as sign language interpreters. The case is Clarence Cepheus Taylor, III v. State of Maryland.1 This ruling centers on whether a Deaf criminal defendant has the constitutional right to confront the interpreter who interpreted his ASL statements into English during a police interrogation when the State offers those interpretations as evidence against the defendant in a criminal prosecution.2

The defendant, Mr. Taylor, was arrested on the allegation that he had sexually abused minors. A hearing interpreter and a Certified Deaf Interpreter (CDI) interpreted while detectives interrogated Taylor for almost five hours. Later in court, a jury found Taylor guilty of abusing two of the seven complaining witnesses.

[Click to view post in ASL]

Although the appellate court looked at several issues regarding interpreters, the main issue in this case was whether or not the prosecution could include the statements interpreted to the police in English without calling to the stand to testify the interpreter who spoke the English.

Even though Taylor’s attorney objected at trial that an audio of an interpreter’s English-language interpretations of Taylor’s sign-language statements should not be admitted as evidence, the court allowed the jury to hear the interpreter’s voice for the almost five-hour police interview. Taylor took the stand in his own defense and contended that there were many “misinterpretations” and “miscommunications” between him and the interpreters.

How does this decision impact the lives of interpreters and Deaf people?

Interpreters are responsible for word choices and content of interpretations. According to the State’s brief, the interpreter was “merely a relay for Taylor’s own statements,” “simply conveying, in a different language” rather than providing the interpreter’s “own independent statements.” (Taylor p. 30). The appellate court disagreed. The appellate court recognized that interpretation is not a word-for-word process, but one in which the interpreter has control over the target language, in this case, English.

Police interviews need to be videotaped. The interpreters in this case were correct in having the interview recorded. Without the video, Mr. Taylor’s direct answers would be lost and only the English would remain. The videotaped recording was one of the main sources of evidence against Mr. Taylor. As stated above, the trial court allowed the State to play the entire English language recording to the jury. However, the appellate court made a distinction between the “video of the sign-language communications between Taylor and the interpreters” and “the audio of the statements by the ASL interpreter…” (p. 7). The appellate court realized that English is a distinct language from ASL and a truer understanding of what the defendant meant could be obtained through analysis of the actual signed statements. “The English words that the jurors ultimately heard in this case were not the words of Taylor, but of [the interpreter],3 expressing his opinion as to a faithful reproduction of the meaning of Taylor’s sign-language expressions.” (p. 34)

Even the best interpreters make errors, particularly when fatigue sets in. “Over the nearly five-hour course of Taylor’s interrogation, the two interpreters received only two breaks: a ten-minute break after about two and a half hours of testimony, and a two-minute break another hour later. Most of the more incriminating statements attributed to Taylor occurred during the later portions of the interrogation.” (p. 36). Interpreting services are expensive, but police interviews may need to be suspended until a second team of interpreters is available to relieve tired interpreters and monitor for errors. Interpreters are responsible to set limits on conditions that are not conducive to accuracy.

Tara Potterveld
Tara Potterveld

Both Deaf and hearing interpreters need to prove their skill level by obtaining education and certification. “Recognizing the high level of education, knowledge, skills, and judgment needed to produce faithful interpretations between English and sign language, Maryland typically requires that court interpreters of sign language undergo a rigorous certification process.” (p. 33). In Carla Mathers’ StreetLeverage posting, How Practicing Sign Language Interpreters Protect Against Legal Liability, she states, “An interpreter can be sued for malpractice if they undertake an assignment and do not follow the standard of care in performing that assignment. If this breach of the standard of care causes damages to any of the parties, the interpreter can be liable.”

Interpreters need to understand the adversarial legal system before accepting legal work. The Miranda warning and subsequent police interview are the first, and some would say, most important part of a legal case. Interpreters need to understand their roles and responsibilities. In this case, the detective told the interpreter to inform Taylor that anything he said could be used against him. The appellate court responded to this by stating, “A reasonable person in the interpreter’s position would expect that his English interpretations of Taylor’s statements would also be used prosecutorially.” (p. 23). This means that interpreters should expect to be subpoenaed and challenged on the stand for their interpretations. Interpreters should be ready to defend their English word choices or admit to errors. “The interpreter does not escape confrontation simply because he…did not personally observe any criminal act.” (p. 29)

Legal interpreters need to continually update their knowledge of legal decisions. For example, the legal concept of “admissibility of interpreted statements over hearsay objections” has changed over the past few years due to court decisions. (p. 42).  Unlike the past, when the interpreter was seen as a tool to decode languages other than English, now, an interpreter is “the declarant of his or her own statements about what the defendant has said.” 4 (p. 43). These changes recognize that sometimes the English that an interpreter speaks may not have the same meaning as what a Deaf person has signed. Taylor testified that the interpreter did not render the appropriate English of a conditional statement; “He testified that he told the interpreters that, if he had touched anyone, it would have been an accident, and he would have apologized.” (p.9). The statement was interpreted as a declarative stating that Mr. Taylor did touch the girls.

This decision is good for Deaf people. When stakes are high, Deaf people should challenge the accuracy of interpreters. Substantive interpretation errors should be “brought to light.” In other words, Deaf people should not be punished or disadvantaged by interpreter errors.


The 2016 court decision, Clarence Cepheus Taylor, III v. State of Maryland is a pivotal case in the interpreting field. It raises the issue of when an interpreter’s English statements can be used as evidence in trials without challenging the interpreter’s rendition. Going forward, we need the input of Deaf community members and Deaf and Hearing interpreters to help craft best practices and standards. Through dialogue and education, justice will be better served.


Nichola Schmitz
Nichola Schmitz

Nichola Schmitz, MA, CDI, SC:L, is a Trilingual Deaf Interpreter, specializing in Mexican Sign Language and Mexican gestures. She has a BA in Psychology and MA in Clinical Psychology.   Nichola has several generations of Deaf people in her family. She interprets mainly in legal and immigration hearings. She has trained Deaf and hearing interpreters in several countries including Ghana, Trinidad, and Mexico.


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Questions for Consideration:

  1. Can the interpreting field develop standards for handling police interactions with Deaf people? What rules would you include in our “best practices”?
  2. How does a case like the one above change your approach to interpreting for the police?
  3. What other recent court decisions affect our work in the legal interpreting field?


1 The author thanks Carla Mathers for calling this case to her attention.

The Sixth Amendment to the United States Constitution provides: “In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right . . . to be confronted with the witnesses against him[.]”

Author decided against using the interpreter’s name in this article since the issues discussed reach far beyond this one instance.

See United States v. Charles 722 F.3d 1319 (11th Cir. July 25, 2013) (No. 12-14080)

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StreetLeverage – It’s Our Birthday!

Time flies when you are having fun! For five years, we have been honored to connect with you about the field we love so much.

5th Anniversary - SL Featured Image 2

It’s been a pleasure engaging with practitioners and stakeholders in the field of sign language interpreting for the past five years. A lot has happened in that time. StreetLeverage contributors and readers have engaged in meaningful and sometimes difficult conversations for which we are grateful. At the same time, we have had the opportunity to meet many new friends, reconnect with others, and attempt to create a space where conversation, self-reflection, and accountability are encouraged.

At StreetLeverage, we also believe in taking the time to celebrate the special moments, special people, and good times. This milestone birthday is one of those moments for us. Thank you for supporting and participating in the StreetLeverage endeavor. Raise a glass with us in celebration!

Here are some fun, unpublished facts to help celebrate our 5 year anniversary.

5th Anniversary of StreetLeverage

We’d love to hear from you! Please take a moment to share some of your own StreetLeverage memories in the comments section below. Here are some questions to start you thinking:

  1. What’s you favorite StreetLeverage moment?
  2. What is your favorite element of StreetLeverage (articles, social media coverage, live stream, LIVE events)?
  3. How many StreetLeverage – Live events have you attended so far? Why do you go?
  4. What StreetLeverage post has impacted you the most?
  5. What topics do you want to see covered by StreetLeverage?
  6. Who would you love to see present at a StreetLeverage – Live event?
  7. What is your favorite StreetLeverage – Live presentation and why?
  8. Who do you wish would write an article for StreetLeverage?
  9. If you wrote an article for StreetLeverage, what would you write about and why?

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The Whole Picture: Why Academic ASL Exposure Matters to Sign Language Interpreters

Ben Bahan presented The Whole Picture: Why Academic ASL Exposure Matters to Sign Language Interpreters at StreetLeverage – Live 2016 | Fremont. His presentation examines the challenges in exposing sign language interpreters to academic ASL due to limited representation in journals and academic environments.

You can find the PPT deck for his presentation here

[Note from StreetLeverage: What follows is an English translation of Ben’s StreetLeverage – Live 2016 presentation. We would encourage each of you to watch the video and access Ben’s original presentation directly.]

The Whole Picture: Why Academic ASL Exposure Matters to Sign Language Interpreters

Why is exposure to academic ASL important for interpreters? Because when we talk about academic ASL, we’re talking about discourse, and discourse is your business. So, it has to be important. This talk will address how we can build a better understanding of ASL academic discourse.

What is Academic ASL?

Jim Gee is a sociolinguist, a linguist, and a literary theorist, among other things. He has examined academic discourse and what comprises academic language. So, what is academic ASL? It is a particular usage of the language. We can analyze discourse at two different levels: the primary level and the secondary level. There are other terms for these levels which are used in the Common Core State Standards: BICS and CALP. But for our purposes, we’ll call them primary and secondary levels.

Primary discourse is the way we use language in the home. It is conversational language. Secondary discourse is what we use in other settings such as school, court, hospitals, public media, and the like. In these settings we shift how we use language, tailoring it to the particular expectations of the setting. Secondary discourse is often used in places of power, which govern how we are to interact, so we have to abide by their expectations. If our primary discourse is very different from how we’re expected to communicate in these settings, we have to learn the secondary discourse like it’s a second language. If, on the other hand, our primary and secondary discourses are not so disparate, then it is easier to navigate between the two. Often, privilege is reflected in primary and secondary discourses which are similar to one another. People who have privilege can interact in domains of power more easily. They have greater fluency in the secondary discourse because it is closer to their primary discourse.

Rules of Engagement

When we analyze academic discourse, we look at its rules of engagement. We examine how we engage in discussion, argument, and disagreement. We examine how we build arguments and support them with data. One such rule is conducting an academic argument with disinterest, with an emotional removal from the discourse. One becomes more objective, setting aside personal opinion and emotion, and engages in a discourse of ideas, not feelings. The goal of removing the discourse from the heat of emotional, personal perceptions is to connect with others in the realm of ideas.

A particular choice of words is another rule of engagement. It’s imperative to choose words or signs which conform to the academic level of discourse rather than the commonplace, primary-level vocabulary. Back in 1996 I went to a conference on infant cochlear implantation with Harlan Lane. He began talking with an esteemed doctor who was an advocate for early implantation. I observed their conversation through an interpreter. They couldn’t have been at greater odds with one another in their discussion, yet their tone was cool and dispassionate. Harlan expertly cited evidence to make his points. Despite their radically opposing positions on the issue, they were able to maintain the discourse because they followed these rules of engagement. Otherwise, they might have had to take it outside. This particular etiquette enabled them to engage successfully in the discourse.

Academic Societies

People assume that the responsibility to develop and teach academic discourse lies with institutions of higher learning, but it goes much deeper than that. In fact, the responsibility belongs to academic societies. Each discipline of study in the academy has its own approach to discourse. When you enter college, whether you go into history, science, interpreting, or psychology, you learn your field’s unique approach to citing sources and engaging in academic discourse. That knowledge is developed and embedded in each academic society. A society’s particular academic discourse evolves dependent upon three layers: the field itself, its ties to a professional organization, and the professional organization’s publishing of academic journals. The discourse learned in the course of study is then practiced at professional conferences — whether during formal talks or social discourse — which in turn leads to the ways academic writing is published in professional academic journals. All three of these layers contribute to the forming of a discipline’s academic discourse.

Academic Societies in the ASL field

One learns and develops academic discourse through these three layers. It doesn’t rest in the domain of schools alone. All three layers contribute to and create its meaning and form of expression in a given language. Now, we’ll turn our attention to ASL. ASL is our field. Within the field, we have the disciplines of ASL education, interpreting, linguistics, and we can include Deaf Studies, as well. Let’s examine the three layers as they pertain to the disciplines within our field.

Academic Societies: Interpreting and Linguistics

In interpreting, we confer the bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral degrees. The Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf and the Conference of Interpreter Trainers function as our professional organizations. As for journals, we have the Journal of Interpretation, the International Journal of Interpreter Education, and there might be some other smaller journals in the field. In linguistics, we confer the bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral degrees. Our organizations are limited to the Sign Language Linguistics Society and FEAST (Formal and Experimental Advances in Sign Language Theory), which is a European-based organization. The journals in this discipline are Sign Language Studies and Sign Language and Linguistics.

Academic Societies: ASL and Deaf Studies

Now, let’s look at ASL and Deaf Studies. We confer the bachelor’s and master’s degrees in ASL, but not the doctoral degree as of yet. For organizations, we have the ASLTA (American Sign Language Teachers Association), but we have no professional journal. In Deaf Studies we confer the bachelor’s and master’s degrees, but not the doctoral degree. We have no professional organizations, but we do have the Deaf Studies Digital Journal and the Journal of Deaf Studies and Deaf Education. There are some interesting gaps here. Let’s look further.

Journal Languages in our Disciplines

The professional interpreting and linguistics journals are all published in English. Authors, therefore, submit work in written English. In the discipline of ASL Education, the ASLTA tends to submit work and get published in the Sign Language Studies Journal or in The Journal of Deaf Studies and Deaf Education, both of which are published in English. The other journal in the discipline of Deaf Studies is the Deaf Studies Digital Journal, which we’ve tried to establish as an alternative to the English language journals, and which has some issues that I’ll discuss in a moment.

How to develop ASL academic discourse if it’s not represented in journals and conferences?

What do we do about academic ASL? It doesn’t exist in our journals, which means we have no opportunity to practice it, refine it, and build a common understanding of what it is. If English is the only language of publication, how can we develop ASL academic discourse? As for conferences, StreetLeverage is unique. Most conferences about sign languages are held in spoken English. Those about linguistics are held in spoken English. You may have someone co-presenting in sign, but where is the opportunity to practice and perfect ASL academic discourse at conferences? When working on my dissertation about ASL, everything I was learning, everything I engaged in discussion about, everything I was reading, was done through English. Conversations with my advisor were typed in English because she was not fluent in ASL. When it came time for me to defend my dissertation in ASL, it was really hard. I couldn’t convey my thoughts about conditional markers and feature spreading in ASL. It all came out in English structure. Because all of the discussion and development of my ideas had occurred in written English, it was nearly impossible to transfer those ideas into ASL. I hadn’t had the opportunity to practice it, discuss it, and cement it in ASL. So, how can we build academic discourse in ASL? We must link academic study, conferences, and journal publication in ASL and then bridge the gap between academic English and academic ASL.

The Deaf Studies Digital Journal

The Deaf Studies Digital Journal (DSDJ) was established in 2009, for the purpose of soliciting academic submissions in ASL. At first, it was hard to find people willing to contribute their work. They were willing to submit research in English, but when asked to submit in ASL too, they claimed that they were not proficient enough in academic ASL to do so. We encouraged them to find people to work with them on it, but it was hard to find people willing to produce the academic works in ASL. There was no system, no established formula for it. We didn’t have a ready-made format for them to follow, and to build one proved too daunting and time-consuming a task. Also, who then would review the works? Our professional peers in the larger academic societies can’t read works in ASL, so they dismiss them, and when the works go unreviewed, their academic worth automatically diminishes. So, how can we require submission in ASL? It’s been a struggle. DSDJ is still operating, but we only receive occasional submissions. In fact, it’s on hold now, because of a lack of funding.


The goal of ASLized is to publish academic works in ASL, and the journal’s efforts are laudable, but with which professional organization is it affiliated? As I said earlier, professional organizations are responsible for ensuring that the research published is conducted by scientists in the field whose work is reliable, valid, and will contribute to the scholarship of the field as a whole. They oversee this aspect of the academic society. These are among the several issues I see with academic ASL in professional journals today.

ASL in Academia

We’ve examined the realm of journals, and have found that, effectively, ASL is not represented. Now, what about institutions of higher education? Here I’m not referring to colleges that accept ASL as a foreign language. I’m addressing the fact that the language of academia in institutions across the country is English. Gallaudet University finally announced in 2007 that it was a bilingual institution. Remember that DSDJ began in 2009, two years later. Upon the announcement we should have gotten into the weeds to determine what it meant to be a bilingual institution. We grappled somewhat with definitions, and we had discussions, but nothing was formally established. Then, in January of 2016, President Cordano stated that our priority was to analyze and address what it means for us to be a bilingual institution. So, after several years of talking around the issue at Gallaudet, we’re now being pushed to do something.

Gallaudet University’s role

Gallaudet is developing a website for students that teaches them how to engage in academic ASL discourse. There are some drop-down menus which show examples of different types of ASL academic discourse, but there aren’t many to choose from, and it seems the website is still a work in progress. For instance, do we know what constitutes an ASL essay? No, because we don’t have a professional literary organization that defines and publishes these works. Instead, we draw from quality student work to inform our academic society. In reality, we should be drawing from the professional echelon to inform our students, not the other way around. This isn’t to say that we have no exemplars of academic work in ASL. Of course, we have a good number of scholars who have done outstanding research in ASL. Raychelle Harris, Laurene Simms, MJ Bienvenu, Maribel Garaté, and Trudy Suggs all are engaged in stellar ASL academic discourse, and we pull various features from their work to create standards and definitions, but we need broader representation in our field.

Efforts toward a definition

So, efforts are underway. We’re examining which ASL features are entailed in academic discourse, such as amount of fingerspelling and degree of grammatical and affective facial markers. We’re having fruitful discussions and attempting to build some basic guidelines.

Working together, accountable together

The different levels I’ve discussed here — institutions, organizations, and journals — need to work together to set standards before we can fully define what is involved and expected in academic ASL discourse. Each level needs to take accountability, as well — something that MJ  and others have talked about — and put in the thought required to establish best practices in their respective domains.

Why does ASL academic discourse matter to interpreters?

You are in the business of discourse, and most interpreters work in an academic setting. If your student is using conversational ASL, and you interpret that into academic English discourse, are you doing a service or a disservice? The professor needs to know that the student isn’t using academic discourse appropriately. You have to know your boundaries around this. It’s a complex issue, and I don’t have an easy answer, but I know that we must work together to grapple with it.

What can we do?

This afternoon we will continue the discussion, look at some examples of ASL text, and analyze the features and functions of ASL academic discourse. We’ll view video samples and draw comparisons between formal and informal discourse. I hope that this entices you to join the afternoon session.

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