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 »  Articles Overview  »  Art of Translation and Interpreting  »  Court in Translation - Common areas of Court Interpreting and Screen Translation

Court in Translation - Common areas of Court Interpreting and Screen Translation

By Saverio P | Published  09/17/2007 | Art of Translation and Interpreting | Recommendation:
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Saverio P
United Kingdom
English to Italian translator

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Common areas of Court Interpreting and Screen Translation





            1. Introduction


Courtroom dramas are a subtype of legal dramas and are arguably one of the most successful TV genres. These products – generally TV series of one-hour episodes – represent a dramatization of the legal system and use law-related situations as narrative devices. The core of these TV series is the courtroom, a place where fictional lawyers reveal their personality through the decisions they make during trial procedures.

            It is a well-known fact that the depiction of trials in courtroom dramas is far from being wholly realistic and may cause misconceptions of the legal system among the audiences. However, this lack of accuracy in relation to reality is justified by the need of writing appealing screenplays and can be found in any genre. Moreover, such TV series can stimulate the debate on controversial issues and serve as a good starting point to analyse and explore the legal system of a source culture.

            Since CBS classic Perry Mason (USA, 1957), countless American and, to a lesser extent, British courtroom dramas have hit international TV channels. The translation of such products certainly poses some difficulties for the legal system can be defined as a highly culture-specific element.

            In this paper, we will compare two professional figures dealing with, respectively, real and fictional courtrooms: interpreters and screen translators. We will also discuss the usefulness of legal dramas in the training of future court interpreters. Thereafter, we will move on to analyse the translation choices made by the operators working on the Italian subtitles of one episode of BBC courtroom drama Judge John Deed (UK, 2001). In the final section, we will draw the conclusions of this analysis and show its results.


            2. Judge John Deed


Judge John Deed is a BBC One courtroom drama created by G.F. Newman. The pilot episode was broadcast in 2001 and, as of January 2007, a total of 29 episodes have been produced. It is the longest-running BBC legal drama to date[1].

            John Deed (Martin Shaw) is an idealistic High Court judge determined to pursue justice regardless of the pressure he gets from the British government. He is a former QC with a working-class background and a turbulent private life [2].  

            The series has been acclaimed by viewers but strongly criticised by many legal professionals, who consider it to be “the most unrealistic of legal dramas” (Robins, 2007). As pointed out by Angelini (2006), the dramatic formula is often too out of touch with reality, especially in the matter of professional and personal relationships that would normally be the cause of conflicts of interests:


         [...] Deed is seen presiding over cases being prosecuted by his ex-wife or defended by his on-off girlfriend (with occasionally help from his daughter), while pressure is invariably brought to bear by his ex-father in law - a senior judge - the Lord Chancellor's department or even the Home Secretary, his ex-wife's new partner.


Creator G.F. Newman defends his product by affirming that the series makes no attempt to be didactic about British legal proceedings but would rather stimulate the viewers’ curiosity and interest in the law:


       No drama should stop or take time to explain the proceedings in a courtroom, but instead try to steer the viewer through it in an intelligent way that leaves him or her with a clear understanding. What we get with this series is an intricate exploration of the law, without patronizing the audience.[3]


            2.1. Political Expediency


In section 4, we will analyse the translation choices of Judge John Deed’s first episode of the second season: Political Expediency. In the chosen episode, the driver of an Arab sheik is charged with the murder of a prostitute and Deed’s sentence might compromise an important British contract with the sheik’s country. The situation becomes even more delicate after the murder of a Prosecution Counsel and the discovery that witnesses and jurors were being bribed.


            3. Court Interpreting and Screen Translation in comparison


At a first glance, Court Interpreting and Screen Translation seem to have little in common but the rendition of a message from one language into another. But if looked more closely, these two disciplines can reveal to cover the same areas of interest and, in the case of legal fiction, they can even be seen as complementary. In this section, we will compare court interpreters and screen translators and argue that multimedia products can help training future court interpreters.

            As pointed out by Benmaman (1995: 185), Knowledge and Skills, Accuracy and Completeness and Professional Development are essential requirements for court interpreters. As concerns Knowledge and Skills, not only a high level of “bilingual proficiency” is expected, but also an in-depth knowledge of two (or more) legal systems. These requirements coincide with those of a screen translator, who cannot allow the presence of mistakes in the translated product and has to provide a faithful rendition of a foreign legal system as represented on screen. However, both professionals often deal with a non-specialised recipient and have to find comprehensible equivalents of culture-specific elements in the target language. Moreover, when relevant, they also have to provide an explanation of these elements and make them clear and accessible in the ears of the recipient. Institutions, fixed formulae and legal proceedings are some of the “obstacles” that interpreters and translators may encounter in the translation process. We will look more closely at this issue in the translation analysis of the Judge John Deed episode.

            With regard to Accuracy and Completeness, the interpreter must “maintain the tone and register of the original message, even if it is inappropriate, offensive or unintelligible” (Mikkelson, 1998). Indeed, avoiding slang words or any kind of “disturbing” content might alter the statements of a party on varying degrees of (in)accuracy, thus limiting their impact in the ears of the relevant legal bodies and the jury. Similarly, screen translators should not embellish informal language or mitigate the swear words or the obscenities contained in a multimedia product. In other words, they should make no attempt to adapt – or censor – any original content according to their moral principles and taste. Of course, it is worth pointing out that inappropriate screen translations carry fewer implications than unfaithful court translations. To our knowledge, no policies regulating the work of screen translators exist, while Italian court interpreters can be charged with perjury in case of mendacious translations (art. 372 – 373 c.p.[4]) (Longhi, 2004).

            Finally, interpreters are entitled to “continually update their skills and knowledge” in the matter of language changes in “regional, vernacular and popular vocabulary, idiomatic expressions and slang terms” (Benmaman, 1995: 186) but also in law-related fields. In the case of screen translators, the knowledge of language evolutions is a sine qua non, but also the awareness of the latest changes in legal systems and terminology can be a plus. 


            In the light of the observations made, court interpreting and screen translation show more than one overlapping area of interest. Especially at an early stage of professional development, future court interpreters can benefit from the portrayal of legal systems on screen. The massive amount of legal dramas on the market can provide good examples of court situations to use in practicing simultaneous and consecutive interpreting both with the use of multimedia and written material (i.e. DVDs and scripts). Such training can help students not only in finding quick, viable solutions to translational problems but also in developing their critical and analytical skills. One may argue that legal dramas are not faithful representations and might confuse the viewer about the reality of courtrooms. However, this aspect could be used as an exercise to distinguish what is real and what is fictional in the portrayal of a legal system.  


            4. Political Expediency: translation analysis


We will now analyse the translation choices made by the operators working on the Italian subtitled version of Political Expediency. In order to narrow the areas of interest of this study, we decided to divide the translation choices up in three sections: Professional figures and Institutions, Fixed formulae, Legal proceedings. For each section, a short list of examples is provided.



            Professional figures and Institutions


Why isn’t the murder going to the Bailey?


Ma non doveva aver luogo (il processo) all’Old Bailey?


The Old Bailey is London’s Central Criminal Court and deals with major crimes from the Greater London area but also from all over England and Wales [5]. Although its historical importance in the source culture, Italian viewers can hardly identify this reference (Olivi, 2003: 76). The translator decided to make it clearer by inserting its full name in the subtitles. However, a more precise definition (e.g. Tribunale Centrale di Londra) might have helped in understanding this reference.





Il Dipartimento di Giustizia


Lord Chancellor


Lord Chancellor


LCD is the abbreviation for Lord Chancellor’s Department. This government department does no longer exist, as it has being replaced by the DCA (Department for Constitutional Affairs) in 2003 and subsequently renamed Ministry of Justice in 2007. The Ministry of Justice now deals with the issues of prisons, probation, prevention of re-offending and sentencing[6]. At the time Political Expediency was filmed, the Lord Chancellor had judicial, executive and parliamentary roles. This peculiarity of the British Constitution created some problems on a European level, and a number of reforms had been necessary to re-establish the principle of separations of powers (Festa, 2003). The subtitled translation Dipartimento di Giustizia recalls one of the Italian Ministry of Justice’s departments: Dipartimento Affari di Giustizia (DAG)[7], which has an administrative role both in civil and penal cases. Although imprecise, the translation choice sounds fairly neutral and might be an appropriate one. 

            As for “Lord Chancellor”, there is no attempt of translation (e.g. Lord Cancelliere) in the Italian subtitled version.



We will adjourn while you consult with the CPS to see if they want a postponement or if they want to appoint a replacement for leader.


Aggiorneremo la seduta mentre lei consulta la procura sul da farsi.


The CPS (Crown Prosecution Service) is the “government department responsible for prosecuting criminal cases investigated by the police in England and Wales” [8]. Some of the roles of this department are to decide whether to prosecute cases submitted by the police, prepare the cases for court when appropriate, and ensure fair trials. In this case, “CPS” has been translated with the generic term procura, which recalls Italian Procura della Repubblica. In case of trial irregularities such as those shown in Political Expediency (the suspicious murder of a Prosecution Counsel, jurors and witnesses being bribed), the parties would be requested to start the procedures back from square one or to produce a verdict later to be judged by the Corte di Cassazione.

            In this case, the translation can be considered as adequate, though a more culture-specific one could have better highlighted the differences between Italian and English systems (i.e. Ufficio del Procuratore della Regina/Corona).


            Fixed formulae


Take the book in your upraised hand, right or left is immaterial and read the oath on the card. I swear by Almighty God that I will faithfully try the defendant and give a true verdict according to the evidence.


Prenda la Bibbia, alzi la mano destra o sinistra e legga il giuramento scritto sulla nota. Giuro che cercherò di giudicare l’imputato onestamente e di giungere a un verdetto.


In an excerpt of Political Expediency, one of the jurors is seen taking an oath while holding a Bible. The formula he pronounces is the general oath used in courtrooms, although several variations exist according to the juror’s religion[9]. In Italy, the presence of a jury is required in Corte d’Assise and Corte d’Assise d’appello when judging serious blood crimes or crimes against the State (e.g. terrorism) which may be sentenced to more than 24 years of conviction or life imprisonment.  In these cases, six people aged 30 – 65 are drawn to serve on a jury and take the following oath:

“con la ferma volontà di compiere da persona d'onore tutto il mio dovere, cosciente della suprema importanza morale e civile dell'ufficio che la legge mi affida, giuro di ascoltare con diligenza e di esaminare con serenità prove e ragioni dell'accusa e della difesa, di formare il mio intimo convincimento giudicando con rettitudine e imparzialità, e di tenere lontano dall'animo mio ogni sentimento di avversione e di favore, affinché la sentenza riesca quale la società deve attenderla: affermazione di verità e di giustizia. Giuro altresì di conservare il segreto”[10]


As we can see, no mention of spiritual faith is made and jurors are not asked to hold a Bible nor the scriptures of any religion. 

            The Italian subtitles of Political Expediency do not feature any fixed formula of oath but are a concise and adequate rendition of the source text.


            Legal proceedings


My Lord may I have permission to treat this witness as hostile?


Posso trattare il testimone con ostilità?


Mister Cooper, I put it to you that you are a liar who is perjuring himself for gain.


Signor Cooper, lei sta mentendo per lucro.


In one excerpt, one of the witnesses is making inconsistent statements and the prosecution thinks he might be committing perjury. In this case, upon permission of the judge, a witness can be considered as adverse and discredited by the party producing (CPA 1865, s.3 [11]). In Italy, if a witness’ statements are inconsistent with the previously gathered evidence, the judge can warn him/her of the legal implications of perjury (art. 207 c.p.[12]).

            The literal translation provided in the subtitles can be considered as inappropriate because it gives the impression that the prosecution is simply treating the witness with impolite manners. Perhaps a more explicative translation (e.g. “dubito dell’affidabilità del testimone”) would have been more appropriate.


            5. Conclusions


The operators working on the Italian subtitled version of Political Expediency opted for an interesting mix of homogenising and foreignising strategies. Some culture-specific elements have been translated with terms belonging to the Italian legal system (e.g. procura), while some others have been left untranslated (e.g. Old Bailey, Lord Chancellor). This choice allows to partially keep the “foreign touch” of the original version - thus stimulating the viewer’s curiosity about the legal system of the source culture – and, at the same time, clarify the references that would require more of an effort to be understood. It is worth pointing out that the use of subtitles is, by definition, a foreignising strategy, and that technical constraints impose inevitable cuts in dialogues. However, the subtitled episode of Judge John Deed that we examined is overall adequately translated and could be used effectively in the training of court interpreting. Indeed, concise translations which nonetheless succeed in conveying the message, can be used as good examples and help future court interpreters in developing their skills.



























References and Bibliography


Angelini, S. (2007). “Judge John Deed review”. Screenonline. Available at (accessed 05.05.2007)


Benmaman, V. (1995). “Legal interpreting by any other name is still legal interpreting”. In Carr, S., R. Roberts, A. Dufour, and D. Steyn eds. (1995 ). 179-190.


Festa, R. (2003). “Il Lord Chancellor: una deroga al principio di separazione dei poteri?”. Centro di Ricerca e Formazione sul Diritto Comparato: Università degli Studi di Siena. Available at

(accessed 10.05.2007)


Longhi. A. (2004). “L’interprete nel processo penale italiano: perito, consulente tecnico o professionista virtuale?”. Intralinea, Vol. 7 (2004-05).


Mikkelson, H. (1998). “Towards a redefinition of the role of the court interpreter”. Interpreting: international. Journal of research and practice in interpreting, III, 1: 21-46.


Olivi. S. (2003). “Il tribunale nel cinema: Cinquant’anni di doppiaggio dall’inglese in italiano”. Unpublished dissertation. SSLiMIT, Advanced School in Modern Languages for Interpreters and Translators, University of Bologna.


Robins, Jon. “Primetime drama – the verdict on TV lawyers – Facts and fictions”, Features, The Times, (2007-01-23):

(accessed 05.05.2007)







Web resources


Criminal Justice System Online: (accessed 10.05.2007)


Crown Prosecution Service Online: (accessed 10.05.2007)


Evidence in Criminal Proceedings: Hearsay and related topics at Law Commission Online: (accessed 11.05.2007)


GF Newman Interview at (accessed 05.05.2007)


DAG at

(accessed 10.05.2007)


Judge John Deed at (accessed 05.05.2007)


Judge John Deed at Wikipedia:

(accessed 05.05.2007)

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