Legal Translation of Recorded Conversations for Use in Court
Courts have long struggled over the most appropriate way to present recorded foreign language conversations and their English translations to the jury.
Needless to say, when a recorded conversation is primarily in English, common practice is to distribute copies of the transcript to members of the jury and allow them to read the transcript as they listen to the recording. By doing so, jurors are able to assess whether the transcript is accurate.
When the conversation is in a foreign language, however, common practice tends to favor distributing the foreign language translation of the conversation to the jury but not to play the actual recording. The reasoning behind this is as follows. First, as the conversation is incomprehensible to the jurors, they will not be able to evaluate the accuracy of the foreign language translation. Second, by not playing the recording the jurors will be prevented from attempting to rely on the foreign language that they simply do not understand and which could bias their view of the foreign language translation. Further, if some jurors are fluent in the language of the recorded conversation, they will rely on their opinion instead of the official testimony presented.
That being said, there are situations where playing the conversation, either in whole or in part, could be useful – or even necessary. For example, when there is a dispute as to the identification of voices or the intelligibility of a recording, then playing the recording makes sense. Furthermore, at times playing the recording so that jurors can hear inflection and emphasis can make sense
Another alternative to playing a recording is to have the foreign language translation read out loud to the jury. However, doing so can be challenged on the grounds that even a neutral reader is likely to interject emphasis or distortion into the process. Thus, many courts choose to simply distribute copies of the foreign language translation transcript, watch the jurors as they read it, and then recollect the transcripts. The only issue arises when a juror is not sufficiently literate in English to be able to read and understand the written foreign language translation of the recorded conversation into English. However, issues like this should be cleared during jury selection.