You understand, don’t you?

This short video was made during the ‘Language and Law’ conference at the Northern Territory Supreme Court in 2012. The video cleverly highlights some of the problems faced by witnesses and defendants who speak an Aboriginal language as their first language. It helps lawyers and and judges to get a brief glimpse into what it would be like to ‘walk in someone’s shoes’ – and hence develop some empathy and understanding.

In brief, the premise of the video is that court is run in Djambarrpuyngu (a variety of Yongu Matha spoken in Northeast Arnhem land). The man sitting in the dock is actually a Supreme Court judge – he just can’t understand the proceedings because he speaks English. When he asks for an interpreter, we see resistance from the judge and prosecutor. The lines used in this video are all real lines that have been said in court as reasons not to use an interpreter. The resistance that still exists towards using interpreters in courts is still quite amazing.

As you watch the video, you’ll see that the defendant has been arrested for unknowingly violating Yolngu law, and then escalating the situation when the ‘djunggaya’ attempt to apprehend him. This mirrors the situation faced by many Aboriginal defendants in the Northern Territory.

This video highlights a number of other communication issues;

  • there are many words that cannot be easily interpreted between Aboriginal languages and English (ie. there is not a one-to-one match).
  • judges and lawyers often make it difficult (or impossible) for an interpreter to do their job well. Sometimes this is intentional, often it is unintentional.
  • Even when speech is interpreted, there is a degree of cross-cultural understanding that is required to make sense of things. The word play about the defendant wearing ‘red dresses and wigs’ is a good example of this.
  • Without sufficient background information, participants in court will interpret information in the way that makes the most sense to their cultural framework – ie ‘he calls himself a judge. He sits down all day in a big chair and takes sit-down money from the government. I think he’s unemployed.’

There is a series of subsequent videos on both youtube and indigitube that continue with this same theme. Overall these ‘reverse-roleplay’ demonstrations have been extremely effective in highlighting just how easy it is for communication to go wrong in court, and how valuable a professional, trained legal interpreter is.

Ben Grimes


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One Response to You understand, don’t you?

  1. ling366 says:

    That video is an interesting insight to what happens to non-English speaking people within our court system. While it has funny moments it is a little sad as well. I wonder if eyes were opened within the gallery and whether changes were made or are being made.

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