COURT IN TRANSLATION
Common areas of Court Interpreting and
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.
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.
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
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.
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 .
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
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
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:
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.
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
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.
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.)
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.
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
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
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 .
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
Dipartimento di Giustizia
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
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),
which has an administrative role both in civil and penal cases. Although
imprecise, the translation choice sounds fairly neutral and might be an
for “Lord Chancellor”, there is no attempt of translation (e.g. Lord
Cancelliere) in the Italian
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.
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” .
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
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
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.
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
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.
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”
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.
Italian subtitles of Political Expediency do not feature any fixed formula of oath but are a concise
and adequate rendition of the source text.
My Lord may I
have permission to treat this witness as hostile?
il testimone con ostilità?
Mister Cooper, I
put it to you that you are a liar who is perjuring himself for gain.
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 ).
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.).
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
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.
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 http://www.unisi.it/ricerca/dip/dir_eco/COMPARATO
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): http://business.timesonline.co.uk/tol/business/law/article1294752.ece
Criminal Justice System Online: http://www.cjsonline.gov.uk (accessed
Crown Prosecution Service Online:
Evidence in Criminal Proceedings: Hearsay and
related topics at Law Commission Online: http://www.lawcom.gov.uk/docs/lc245.pdf
GF Newman Interview at BBC.co.uk: http://web.archive.org/web/20030101140735/www.bbc.co.uk/drama/crime/judge/gf_newman_interview.shtml
DAG at Giustizia.it: