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Legal Interpreting: Challenges with Law Enforcement

Aug 23, 2022 | Interpreter Education

by: Lisa Hendrickson, CI - NIR Coordinator

          A vital aspect of the law enforcement process is the interview, previously known as the interrogation, of suspects and witnesses. This is a complex process that requires the acuity of highly trained and skilled officers. The presence of an interpreter adds yet another layer, or layers, of complexity to the interview process. In the book, Law Enforcement Interpreting for Deaf Persons, the author, Potterveld, makes the point that officers are “…trained to decipher eye gaze to check veracity…[and] trained to analyze speech patterns and length of pauses of suspects to obtain clues about deception, hear instead the interpreter’s voice.”  Even if an interpreter does a superb job matching content and affect, there is no way they could know whether the client is telling the truth and, therefore, cannot possibly create the eye gaze, speech patterns, and pauses that would have been present in the client’s voice (and eye gaze). 

          This observation accounts for one of the complications that may arise while interpreting from American Sign Language to English. There is yet another layer of complexity while interpreting from English to American Sign Language. Officers are trained to speak in a very specific way in order to elicit certain kinds of responses from the suspect or witness. This includes various deliveries of the Miranda Warning, depending on the nuances of the situation. While an interpreter can do their best to match the affect and pacing, it is virtually impossible to create an exact match to the officer’s intent. 

          To add one more layer of complexity, we must note that much of an officer’s initial questioning and banter may be delivered in a way to build trust with the suspect or witness. The addition of another being, interpreter or not, can affect this trust-building scenario, especially when we consider that hearing officers rarely encounter Deaf suspects or witnesses. This low-incidence experience for the officer could create much difficulty in their ability to build the level of trust required for full disclosure. 


Potterveld, T. (2012). Law enforcement interpreting for deaf persons. Alexandria, VA: Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf.

Standard Practice Papers. (2007), retrieved February 21, 2019: CLICK TO VIEW


If you have an interest in other Legal Interpreting information, please check out two previous, informative Legal-related blogs on the Nationwide Interpreter Resource Website, https://interpreterresource.com/blog/:


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