Linguistic minorities on trial: Reflections on interpreting multilingual identities in legal settings
Katrijn Maryns, University of Ghent, Lessius University College
In our ever more globalized society, increased minority participation amounts to higher visibility of linguistic inequalities in legal-bureaucratic settings. Arguably, it is the legal system itself—the dominance of one language that is institutionally formalized—which structurally disadvantages linguistic minority participants, for this ultimate orientation towards the institutionalized standard forces them to make choices that, in any case, keep them from using the full range of their communicative potential. Linguistic minority speakers in legal settings are encouraged to express themselves in their ‘native’ language through an interpreter. Unquestioned reliance on interpreter-mediated interaction as the most effective and efficient answer to perceived multilingual complexities, however, overlooks some important issues: first, the fact that consistent monolingual usage cannot be taken for granted in translocal spaces of communication and second, the fact that interpreted and translated discourse, just like any other form of discourse representation, inevitably testifies to the conditions under which it is produced. In order to substantiate these arguments, I analyse two instances of interpreter-mediated interaction in two strikingly different contexts of legal decision-making in Belgium. The first is the case of an African asylum seeker who had to motivate his claim at the asylum agencies in Brussels. The second is a murder case that involved immigrant litigants and came before the Assize Court in Antwerp. These two procedures, though inherently different from a juridical perspective, actually display some striking similarities when it comes to the evaluation of multilingual performances and identities. Not only do they equally impose a monolingual ideology on the multilingual performances encountered in the legal space, they also equally underestimate the filtering effects of interpreting and translation on the discursive production of evidence. The data demonstrate how the displacement of the linguistic minorities in both cases constrains the functionality of their communicative resources. I subsequently argue that equal treatment of linguistic minorities in the legal process would require a revaluation of their entire set of linguistic resources needed to actively participate in the proceedings.