Encountering both High and Low Registers

UpsidedownScanThe interpreter should be able to anticipate register, but people can surprise you. I have interpreted arbitrations with foreign government officers as witnesses and the register remained high throughout. Then there are disgruntled defendants in a deposition who speak in a low register especially when arguing with the opposing counsel. When transcribing a 9-1-1 call, the register can reflect the emotional state of the speaker.


But there are times when the register changes, even during the official spoken ritual of a Judge or lawyer. It is good to see this effort to reach across the divide allowing full participation in the judicial proceeding.


The best example of bridging the gap between high and low register I have seen is when a child witness is being put under oath by a judge to swear under oath to tell the truth the whole truth and nothing but the truth The judge needs to verify that the child knows how to make a promise and if they know the difference between a lie and the truth. The judge breaks down the high register of the oath and piece by piece and institutes the child’s definition of a lie and then their definition of the truth. Finally the child is asked if they promise to tell the truth.  Further gaps in register are filled in by establishing and accepting the word choices used by the child. Often during the examination of the child, unique words and terms used by the child are defined by the child as what they call what the Judge is asking about. Then the Judge will use the same terms the child expresses for those same things or concepts. The child’s terms and definitions are verified and placed on the record in the process.

This merging of registers is not the job of the court interpreter. We simply follow the register as presented.  The Judge or attorney has the option and right to do this. But we interpreters have the responsibility to recognize different registers and interpret accurately and completely while maintaining that register.

Once you consider the speaker and setting youkan then be aware of the potential switch in register. Then you can smoothly interpret in the same register.  Attorneys, Judges, law enforcement professionals and interrogators/interviewers are trained to alter their register to facilitate comprehension.

Many times I have seen in a Q&A format when a formal register was used in the questions and the respondent really couldn’t understand the questions. I have also seen expert or technical witnesses respond in a formal register and had to be asked over and over to clarify their answer. It is also very common for a witness, who I am interpreting for at court, to seem to be caught off guard when they hear the formal register of the proceedings spoken by the Judge and attorneys. One result is they lose concentration and their testimony is diminished. They are already a bit nervous and they are used to conversing with their attorneys in an informal almost casual register. Litigators can resolve this by preparing the witness for the court room experience and explaining that they can expect to hear formal language during the proceedings. The interpreter cannot do this on their own.

Unfortunately if the questioner is not paying attention to the register abyss that has developed, they have the tendency to blame the interpreter for the miscommunication. Consider the source first. If there is a problem in the original wording, a good interpretation transfers that problem just like a telephone. And we, professional  interpreters, enjoy providing a good connection.

3 thoughts on “Encountering both High and Low Registers”

  1. that’s very true…we are simply followers of the register being used and nothing more….it’s not even our responsibility to make sure the LEP person understands.

  2. Hi Diane, Absolutely. Good example! I believe the register has to change depending on what genre is translated. I do a lot of legal and medical and literary. So the language always changes. It seems like all my translations are time-consuming monsters, but I do like the challenge!
    Birgit Bottner Sworn Translator, Published Author, German-English

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