Decoding and Constructing Meaning from Text Messages: Pragmatic Considerations for Court Interpreters

By Pilar Cal-Meyer

Text messaging has become one of the most ubiquitous and convenient means of communication in our times. People from virtually every sociocultural and linguistic background in the United States have at their fingertips a new way to exchange information and to express themselves. Text messages, however, can also be sensitive materials in a court of law, especially when written in languages other than English, or LOTE, because they have to be construed or decoded1, and inferred by the outsider2 interpreter. The use of text messaging has undoubtedly opened up a whole new chapter in the legal arena, and a new dimension in court interpretation, translation, and forensic linguistics.


While text messages can be dictated voice-to-text, it is usually the fingers “speaking” the minds of the communicators. Indeed, text messaging has been referred to as “fingered speech.” (Copeland, 2013). Though delivered in written and visual structures, the language of text messages resembles spoken utterances3 with all of the components and complexities of oral communication. It is precisely the hybrid nature of text messaging4 that makes it a fascinating subject from a linguistic standpoint. Speech-like forms are seemingly “wrapped” or encoded in written-like forms to give rise to a speech-writing-plus hybrid language in its own right, not just as the result of the implementation of two modes of language. The new hybrid language constitutes an artefact with uncertain linguistic, pragmatic and cognitive ends that deserves professional attention.

From a user’s perspective, it is the simplicity of the speech-like features that attracts people from all walks of life to engage in text messaging. Everyone welcomes a forgiving means of communication that allows interlocutors to speak their minds freely and naturally in casual registers without being judged for flouting grammatical correctness or rules of conventional writing. It is a relief, some will say, to be able to blame imperfect technologies, e.g., electronic glitches and stubborn spellcheckers for one’s own personal oversights.

The present discussion focuses on the processes of constructing/deriving meaning from text messages and not as much on decoding. After all, decoding or cracking literal and semantic meaning is a well-understood process and a more predictable task than figuring out intended meanings ostensibly inferable in text messages. Interestingly enough, electronic glitches or typos, poor grammar and other irregularities produced by parties are not the main concern in constructing meaning. This paper does not focus on the translation process either, since finding linguistic and cultural equivalents in the English language is no different from what we do in our everyday job when doing face-to-face interpreting. The chief challenge, as I see it, consists in figuring out how to construct meaning or “make sense,” if at all possible, from explicit linguistic forms and from pragmatic signs produced in private communications.

Please note that the terms “decoding” or “construing” pertain to recovering meaning from linguistic forms, and “constructing” relates to inferring meaning from pragmatic evidence, that is, from ostensible cues and logical assumptions.

The speech-writing-plus hybrid language

As stated above, the language of text messages is more than a simple amalgamation of spoken and written form, i.e. more than the sum of its parts. The idiosyncratic speech-writing-plus hybrid language is neither produced by the vocal cords nor heard by the human ear, but it shares important features with face-to-face conversation as well as with the written mode of language.

Parallels between text messages and face-to-face interaction

  • Interactivity occurs in both modalities.
  • Speakers and text messengers engage in turn-taking when they converse, taking the floor for relatively brief turns.
  • Dialogues are un-planned and spontaneous.
  • Speech is direct and immediate.
  • Conversation is synchronic.
  • Speakers and text messengers digress and shift topics abruptly.
  • Speakers receive immediate feedback (in texting some sporadic delays may occur).
  • There is abundant use of colloquialisms, vernacular terms, slang, intimate expressions, interjections, onomatopoeia and other speech features and patterns.
  • Mutual understanding of coded and contextualized communication is common.

Parallels between text messages and the written mode of language

  • Usage of an orthographic and typographic system is necessary to encode (produce) and decode (read/decipher) visual representations in the form of graphemes and orthographic signs.

The following elements are also unique to text messaging and most challenging for outsider interpreters:

  • Private and ambiguous language impervious to outsiders
  • Highly contextualized coded communication between interlocutors

Uniqueness of the speech-writing-plus hybrid language of text messaging
There are startling phenomena exclusive to the speech-writing-plus hybrid language:

  • Excessive and continuous presence of grammatical inconsistencies and gaps
  • Fragmented and short speakers turns; very short exchanges; intermittent and interrupted conversations that can go for minutes, hours or days
  • Overuse of ever-changing and spontaneous shortcuts, abbreviations, onomatopoeias, alliterations, acronyms
  • Use of ‘emoticons,’ iconic symbols, visual representations familiar only to parties
  • Whimsical ways to economize space on the screen and to minimize effort in processing (e.g., the use of the letter “k” for all similar sounds as in “c” “qu” and “k” in Spanish)
  • Electronic glitches, faulty and stubborn spellcheckers consistently obstructing comprehension and altering the meaning of the message
  • Encapsulation or minimization of ideas, statements, propositions and other language forms to their minimum expression
  • Limited use of discourse markers, e.g., adverbs, conjunctions, prepositions, deictic pointers, and other referents of space, time and persons/pronouns
  • Limited use of cohesion markers, markers of transition, etc.
    Unclear discourse patterns and peculiar configurations of composition and organization; unclear anaphoric references
  • Poor adherence to principles of relevance, amount, quality and other descriptive and prescriptive qualities of the written and speech modes

Definition of text messaging

In general, a text message is a short message sent and received through a device such as a cellular phone, PDA or pager. Text messaging is used for messages that are no longer than a few hundred characters. The term is usually applied to messaging that takes place between two or more mobile devices.
An electronic message is sent over a cellular network from one cell phone to another by typing words, often in shortened form, as “l8t” for “late,” on the phone’s numeric or QWERTY keypad.
In a pragmatic sense, text messages are short entities of speech-like forms combined with written-like forms resulting in a speech-writing-plus hybrid language used between two or more individuals via electronic/digital data for personal communication.
At the discourse level5, a text message is an electronic interaction/conversation whereby meaning is cognitively negotiated and co-constructed between the text author (transmitter) and the reader (receiver). Their mutual understanding heavily relies on how they co-construct implicit and explicit meanings as members of a speech community, from personal and social cues and from spaces of commonalities, differences, power relations and identities.


Decoding and inferring

“In verbal communication, the starting point is the small hint given by the encoded meanings of linguistic expressions.” (Clark, 2013). Deriving and constructing meaning from text messages is attained by first decoding the linguistic structures, but semantic and literal structures alone can only tell so much of the story. Speakers and text messengers need to “fill in the gaps” to make sense of their interlocutors’ signs and intentions. In turn, interpreters too will have to fill in the same gaps to make sense of what they read in text messages assigned to them in order to figure out what parties say and intend to say.

To an extent, Seleskovitch’s metaphor (Seleskovitch, 1978, as quoted in Wilcox, 2005) of court interpreters as “mind-readers” merits reflection because even when “we cannot and do not assume that we know what is going on inside the heads of the speakers, we do make assumptions about what people are meaning […].” (Wilcox, 2005).

[Some models] of communication…assume that language encodes meanings, and that understanding is the mechanical process of decoding. Other models of communication … recognize instead that comprehending language is a process of constructing meaning, arriving at conclusions of what someone’s meaning and intentions might be on the basis of the perceptible evidence that they produce – the sounds or the signs that they make when they use language. (Wilcox, 2005).

With that said, the terms decoding and inferring are dissimilar. According to Wilcox and Shaffer,
…cognitive linguistics does not assume a code model in which communication is achieved by encoding and decoding messages. Rather, cognitive linguistics works from an inferential model in which communication is achieved by producing and interpreting6 evidence. (Wilcox, 2005).

And as Sperber and Wilson (1995:12–13) note:
…inferential and decoding processes are quite different. An inferential process starts from a set of premises and results in a set of conclusions which follow logically from, or are at least warranted by, the premises. A decoding process starts from a signal and results in the recovery of a message which is associated to the signal by an underlying code. (Wilcox, 2005)

By “forming a hypothesis about what someone intended to say by an ostensibly communicative act” (Clark, 2013), interlocutors follow lines of inferential reasoning and assumptions in order to decode and construct meaning. Court interpreters constantly engage in inferential work, though it should be clear that inferential work is not the result of guessing or speculating but the result of logical deductive reasoning.

Court interpreters as language experts

Decoding and constructing meaning from text messages is not equivalent to face-to-face interpretation or to translation. However, like an alchemist, the interpreter-translator is expected to turn abstruse and disjointed segments of private conversations into intelligible and accurate renditions, often on the spot. The reality is that the job requires specialized knowledge and skills, an analytical mind and a judicious approach. Making sense or constructing meaning from statements in text messages is indeed the province of forensic linguistics7, given the linguistic, pragmatic and legal knowledge required to work with such evidentiary materials. Fortunately, most trained and experienced court interpreters are equipped to do the job very well.

Needless to say, working with text messages is a more sensitive and complex task than face-to-face interpretation. More needs to be assumed and inferred in text messages because intended meanings and words have already been materialized in the past; meaning is now “frozen” in time and married to its contextual variables and relational parameters, mostly unknown and often unfathomable to the interpreter.

Human communication is not a linear event but a complex activity involving multiple levels of linguistic, pragmatic and cognitive affairs.

Some distinctions between working with face-to-face human beings and text messages:

Face-to-face interpreters see facial expressions, physiognomic features, demeanor, way of dressing, acting and other visual features captured in real time that facilitate a minute-by-minute synchronic assessment of the speaker’s reactions and demeanor; there is no visual input whatsoever in decoding/inferring text messages.

Face-to-face interpreters rely on phonological and prosodic cues from which pragmatic meaning is drawn, e.g., tone of voice, pitch, loudness, inflections, intonation and other systematic vocalizations; there is no prosodic input whatsoever in decoding/inferring text messages.

Face-to-face interpreters are always allowed, even required to check with the witnesses for clarifications to receive feedback on any issue arising at the moment; there is no possibility of asking questions about a decontextualized and opaque text message.

Translations of text messages will usually stand as true and valid, even if poorly executed (!) unless one of the parties moves to contest a dubious rendition. Therefore language professionals bear a remarkable responsibility. The monumental task demands expertise, thorough analysis and careful execution. Neither court expeditiousness nor obsequious diligence should undermine the spirit, purpose and aims of language access and due process.

It is important to know that messages written by limited English proficient individuals are more susceptible to legal repercussions than those written by Anglophones because messages in English can be parsed, stipulated, and argued by all stakeholders in the case who are speakers of the mainstream language: English. However, messages written in LOTE are required to be translated into English. To that end, the process starts with decoding linguistic expressions and constructing inferable meaning through the interpreter’s subjectivity, judgment and schema8. Next, an additional layer of discretionary linguistic and cultural constraints involved in the translation process will take place. In other words, while constructing meaning and while translating (or performing language interpretation), everything said by the speaker is force-fitted into one person’s version—that of the interpreter. At the end of the day, all parties will follow procedure based on the court interpreter’s renditions.

Legal concerns in text messaging

Words meant as mundane exchanges in a private digital conversation can turn into evidence at a moment’s notice. Once transmitted and received, it will be impossible to retract them. Since digital texts are suitable for private and spontaneous expressions between intimates, it is often the case that excited utterances and any suspicious linguistic forms are subject to be construed as incriminating statements that can be considered discovery materials and thus evidence in a court of law.

Just as in face-to-face interpretation, translations can also be deemed prima facie evidence whereby the words of the translator are regarded as the words of the speaker. This approach champions the view of the interpreter as a conduit. The language conduit theory is premised on a deeply flawed understanding of language interpretation and it may be obliterated nationwide in the near future9. In contrast to certain courts and circuits of appeals that uphold the legal fiction of the conduit model, others are adopting new approaches from recent case law that reject the conduit model. These jurisdictions acknowledge instead that language interpretation and translation are subjective and discretionary and can consequently be regarded as hearsay if challenges are raised by defense counsel because the interpreter’s renditions can be viewed as the interpreter’s own statements, and not as those of the limited English proficient person. Currently, the Eleventh Circuit has expressly rejected the language conduit theory as inconsistent, and its jurisdictions require that interpreters/translators be made available for cross-examination if out-of-court interpretations or translations of text messages are presented as testimony according to the confrontational clause of the 6th amendment.

Translations of text messages will usually stand as true and valid, even if poorly executed (!) unless one of the parties moves to contest a dubious rendition. Therefore language professionals bear a remarkable responsibility. The monumental task demands expertise, thorough analysis and careful execution. Neither court expeditiousness nor obsequious diligence should undermine the spirit, purpose and aims of language access and due process.

Pragmatic considerations

Now that some points have been made as to the nature of the speech-writing-plus hybrid language and on constructing meaning, it will be helpful to get acquainted with a few pragmatic concepts, even if in an oversimplified way.

Pragmatics is the study of language in context, or what we do with language. Basic concepts of pragmatics can assist interpreters to become aware of crucial facts when constructing meaning from text messages.

From Pragmatics by Jean Stilwell Peccei (Peccei, 2007):
“Pragmatics is the study of how more gets communicated than is said.” (Yule, 1996, p. 3).

“There is a distinction between a hearer’s knowledge of her language and her knowledge of the world. […] I shall argue that it is this distinction that underlies the distinction between semantics and pragmatics]”. (Blakemore, 1992, p. 39)

While we cannot venture to guess the intended meaning of a text messenger, we cannot rely exclusively on the literal and semantic meaning of the words either. There are signs and forms, and there are pragmatic cues and cognitive tools from which to infer and construct meaning in consistent ways. The description by Chapman below can be very elucidating:

Pragmatics is often described as being a branch or field of linguistics; indeed, categorizing it in this way makes a lot of sense. Linguistics is the academic subject that is concerned with the analysis, description and explanation of human language and pragmatics contributes to this project by focusing on the interaction between language and context. But perhaps strictly speaking, pragmatics should be described outside of and separate from mainstream or ‘core’ linguistics, [that is, from linguistics’] ‘core’ components including phonology, morphology, syntax and semantics. Pragmatics stands apart from these because its subject matter is not, or not exclusively, language itself but the production and interpretation10 of language in relation to contexts of use. In that way, pragmatics is distinguished from ‘core’ linguistics by being concerned not just with the linguistic component of the mind but with a much larger set of knowledge and cognitive processes concerned with the interpretation of communication in context. (Chapman, 2011) [Emphasis added.]

Pragmatic studies assert that the forms or signs in language fall short of the story behind them; accordingly, there is much more than meets the eye, so to speak. With that line of reasoning, pragmaticists agree in that “…there is always a significant gap between what it is linguistically encoded and what speakers actually intend by their utterances.” (Clark, 2013) In relevance theory, this gap has been termed as the underdeterminancy thesis to reflect the idea that “linguistically encoded meanings always significantly underdetermine intended meanings. The gap between what is [linguistically] encoded and the meaning we eventually arrive at is filled by pragmatic inference.” (Clark, 2013)

Contextualized/decontextualized text messages: speakers’ variables

If it is true that text messages can be used by individuals relatively distant on a social continuum, (boss and employee; doctor and patient; teacher and student, etc.), most interlocutors are intimates, i.e. close individuals, (relatives, friends, spouses, romantic partners). When intimates communicate there is a presumption of a mutually accepted direction of the conversation or a seemingly implicit understanding of the main line of thought. By using previous frames of reference, text messengers anticipate, predict and infer meaning from each other as if following a cooperative force of communication similar to face-to-face conversation. Conversely, for the outsider party, such as a court interpreter, the language and intentions of written in the exchanges is unknown territory.

Accordingly, speakers, including text messengers, adopt their language to accommodate their communication needs, i.e., the style of speech, register, regionalisms, metaphors, slang, idioms, words of affection, expletives, abbreviations, etc. They also recognize their membership according to speech community, ethnicity, culture, socioeconomic status, educational background, and tacit agreements as to the dynamics of the power relations between them. It is not surprising then, to realize that the closer the relationship between the text messengers, the less explicit their exchanges might need to be. However, for the uninvited outsider interpreter, decoding and constructing meaning from such close/closed communications becomes a major challenge.

Therefore, to say close and closed communication11 is to say contextualized12 communication from the perspective of the interlocutors familiar with the context, the subject matter of their conversation and the meanings they co-construct. However, it is decontextualized language13 from the perspective of the outsider court interpreter. Highly contextualized/decontextualized communications can make the court interpreter’s job very difficult and sometimes unworkable.

Speech Acts

Speech act theory is a subfield of pragmatics that can help to describe how speakers use language to produce a result or a response in their hearers. For instance, interlocutors engage in speech acts to express thoughts, intentions, states of mind and a range of moods and emotions. The theory was developed by the philosopher J.L. Austin and later on by John Searle, and its principles are definitely central to pragmatics to making a distinction between “what a sentence literally means and what he can be used to do or to perform.” (Chapman, 2011)

When speaking or writing, or when ‘finger-speaking’, interlocutors perform various “acts”: locutionary14 acts, illocutionary15 acts, and perlocutionary16 acts. “The difference between locutionary and illocutionary acts is sometimes referred to as, respectively, the difference between “saying” and “doing.” (Meyer, 2009) The main interest of speech act theorists’ revolves around speakers’ intentions or the illocutionary force, that is, the intended effects of speech acts, i.e., requests, commands, orders, threats, apologies, promises, etc.

Since words and utterances do not have fixed values or absolute meanings, the statement in Spanish “ya verás…” [you’ll see…] in the example below can have more than one meaning depending on a number of contextual variables. Therefore, what appears as a straightforward and clear statement can mean something very different if taken at face value. It is not unusual to think that a “safe” way to work with an isolated statement is by assigning semantic values to each word. And yes, that is a way to deal with isolated or ambiguous segments of language. Nonetheless, the professional court interpreter has the responsibility and ability to look into the psychological process of the speakers and the linguistic evidence in the text message in order to figure out what they were trying to communicate in any given exchange. Literal meaning alone is not enough to name the speech act below. Is it a threat, a promise, a prediction, or a different speech act?

“Ya verás” [You’ll see] Is this utterance…
A prediction?
A threat?
A promise?

A prediction

Notice how a few contextual clues can help to disambiguate the illocutionary force or intended meaning of the message. If we know that the words “you’ll see ” were texted by an eye doctor to a patient after treating him, the speech act would be a prediction about the patient’s ability to perceive visual stimuli through the eyes, or to see at a later time. Without such additional information, e.g., the roles and relationship of the speakers (doctor-patient), it would be difficult to establish the purpose and intention of the utterance. If additional exchanges are offered, such as “…as soon as I remove the bandages” the pragmatic meaning will be more ostensible.

A threat

The very same words “you’ll see… ” texted by a husband to his wife from the jail after his arrest on domestic violence charges could be construed as a threat, and the speech act as a threat too, especially if they are followed by a second text message like “you bitch…” However, if the utterance “ya verás” [you’ll see] was submitted as such and no clues were available for the interpreter in regard to the circumstances, the speakers, or the allegations, then, there would be no choice but to render the statement/utterance literally. The cautious interpreter would appropriately refrain from deeming the speech act as a threat and from rendering a pragmatic meaning that is not ostensible.

A promise

The same words can come from a man addressing his girlfriend with the intention to convey a promise, e.g., “you’ll see… next time I’ll wash the dishes”.

The example above illustrates that the court interpreter will need more than literal or semantic information before she can decode and construct a reliable meaning.

Basic pragmatic tips toward decoding and constructing meaning

One has to ask: Does the text message make sense in its own right, without any context or additional segments of language, or does it require additional information in order to derive pragmatic meaning? What is the propositional content of the utterance? Is this direct or indirect speech? Is the meaning explicit or implicit? How literal or figurative is the utterance? Is it metaphorical, ironic, sarcastic, intimidating, angry, neutral, vague, etc.?

Could the message prompt disputed meanings among colleague interpreters or more than one interpretation? What inferences can be drawn? What presuppositions can be made? Does the utterance point to a place, time, or people, or to previous references in the same text or in earlier texts in the chain? Are there other possible cognitive interpretations more (or less) prejudicial than others? Who is saying it? How are the interlocutors related? What are the relationships of power between the two? What are the circumstances sustaining the conversation? These are all questions within the domain of pragmatics.

Without information as to some of the speakers’ variables (age, gender, relationship, vernacular, relationship of power, etc.) it will be difficult to provide a fair rendition. How utterances are said, where, when, by whom and to whom provide essential information as well.

Additional pointers and considerations:

Admitting the impossibility of decoding or constructing meaning when the texts are unworkable is a commendable practice—an act of ethical standards and good judgment. On the other hand, “playing it safe” without exploring instances whereby educated inferential operation and deductive/inductive reasoning are appropriate is not.

qode interactive strata
At work

Helpful Hints
Certain mental tools become critical to meaning construction, decoding and translating text messages. With that in mind, try to:

  • Inquire about the speakers’ variables (i.e., age, gender, and socioeconomic status, cultural and ethnic background).
  • Ascertain as best as possible the messengers’ shared knowledge. The closer the messenger parties, the more coded the language will be and the harder for outsiders to comprehend.
  • Analyze and determine what type of speech act is contained in the text or chain of text messages based on grammatical and pragmatic cues, e.g., is it a command, a request, a confession, a threat, a proposition, an invitation to certain action, etc.?
  • Disambiguate the message based on linguistic forms and on pragmatic inferential reasoning.
  • Identify discourse indicators of relations and/or asymmetries of power. What is the relationship: are they coworkers, classmates, dating partners, man and wife, etc.? The style of language used between intimates (either equal or unequal), and between dominant and subordinate parties display specific discourse referents.

Obtain as much information as possible from attorneys in order to build context

  • Familiarize yourself with the police report and with prosecutor and defense narratives in order to have more context and a “story line.”
  • Ask attorneys the nationality of their clients, their vernacular, speakers’ variables and the power relationships between the parties exchanging text messages.
  • Make a quick assessment as to how long it will take you to complete the job.
  • Check the whole string of exchanges if available, even if you’ve been asked to translate just one particular turn/exchange; make sure the exchanges are in chronological order.
  • Check the times, names and turn taking for each messenger to establish a linear sequence.
  • Work with other colleagues and have all your tools and resources available.
  • Check that the names are ascribed to the corresponding parties.
  • Ascertain whether the message is disrupted or delayed more than a few minutes, hours or days?
  • Find out whether the message is truncated?
  • Disambiguate: literal meaning, figurative?
  • How literal is the utterance; is the utterance metaphorical; is the utterance vague?
  • Is this direct v. indirect communication?
  • How clear are the inferential cues, implicatures18, and presuppositions?
  • Recognize your limitations as an “outsider” when working with highly contextualized/decontextualized text messages.

Human communication is not a linear event but a complex activity involving multiple levels of linguistic, pragmatic and cognitive affairs. The construction of meaning whether by interlocutors or by the outsider interpreter is not attained by assigning predefined and discrete linguistic forms, but by processing linguistic and cognitive interpretations within particular social and linguistic contexts.

We can conclude that text messages written in languages other than English are sensitive materials in a court of law because they are odd speech-writing-plus hybrid forms funneled through the subjectivity and discretion of the court interpreter. Looking into the psychological processes of interlocutors in an attempt to figure out what they were trying to communicate by means of a hybrid medium in a private setting is perhaps one of the most daunting challenges the outsider interpreter will face.

Being aware of fundamental pragmatics and cognitive processes involved in constructing meaning from encoded propositions of linguistic expression in text messages can only help court interpreters to recognize and avoid pitfalls and to develop best practices. l and linguistic contexts.

Back, K. (2003). Context ex Machina. In Z. Szabo (Ed.), Semantics versus Pragmatics. Oxford University Press.

Blakemore, D. (2011). Understanding Utterances. In S. Chapman (Ed.), Pragmatics. London: Palgrave Macmillan.Clark, B. (2013). Relevance Theory. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Copeland, M.V. (n.d.). Texting Isn’t Writing, It’s Fingered Speech. Retrieved from Davis, W. (Fally 2014 Edition). Implacture. Retrieved from

Evans, V. (2014). Cognitive Linguistics. Oxford Handbook of Cognitive Science. Retrieved from

Gibbons, J. (2005). Forensic Linguistics: an introduction to language in the new justice system. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing.

Hale, S. B. (2010). The Discourse of Court Interpreting. Philadelphia, PA : John Benjamins Publishing Co.

Hernandez, P. R. (2008). Latinos/as and the Law in Massachusetts. Worcester, MA, USA.

Leistyna, P. (1999). Presence of Mind, Education and the Politics of Deception. Boulder,CO: Westview Press.

LEMKE, J. (n.d.). Analysing Verbal Data: Principles, Methods, and Problems. New York, NY, USA. Retrieved from

Meyer, C. F. (2009). Introducing English Linguistics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Peccei, J. S. (2007). Pragmatics. NY: Routledge.

Rumelhart, D. (1980). Biolawgy Copernicus Center. Retrieved May 14, 2016, from

Schmidt, J. C. (2010). Longman Dictionary of Language Teaching & Applied Linguistics. Edinburgh: Pearson Educating Limited.

Seleskovitch, Danica (1978). Interpreting for International Conferences. Washington, DC: Pen

and Booth.

Wilcox, S. (2005). Towards a Cognitive Model of Interpreting. In T. Janzen (Ed.), Fundamentals of Signed Language Interpretation: theory and practice (p. 222). Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

Yule, G. (1996) Pragmatics, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

[1] In general terms, decoding is the process of trying to understand the meaning of a word, phrase, or sentence. It is used also to mean construing or interpreting any set of symbols which carry a meaning. (Schmidt, 2010)


[2] Outsiders are uninvited participants of the private conversation (interpreters, attorneys, judges, etc.). Outsiders, even if professional providers such as the decoder interpreter more likely will misconstrue and deliver false renditions if messages are taken literally or at ‘face value’ (based on literal or semantic meaning alone).


[3] Utterance is the primary unit upon which the study of pragmatic meaning is based. They are physical entities which we perceive aurally (if spoken) or visually (if written or signed).


[4]  I refer to ‘text messages’ to mean any form of “spoken-written utterances” such as e-chatting, instant messaging on Facebook, Twitter, and other social media.


[5] Discourse usually refers to larger units of language, such as paragraphs, conversations and interviews.  Discourse is a general term for examples of language use, i.e., language that has been produced as an act of communication. In postmodernism and critical discourse analysis, discourse is used to indicate the meaning and values embedded in talk.  (Schmidt, 2010). Also, a discourse represents the ways in which reality is perceived through and shaped by historically and socially constructed ways of making sense, that is, language, complex signs and practices […]. (Leistyna, 1999)


[6] Not in the sense of language switching but in the sense of “the psychological process whereby listeners figure out what speakers are trying to communicate” (Bach, 2003).


[7] The term Forensic linguistics can be used narrowly to refer only to the issue of language evidence. However, it is becoming accepted as a cover term for language and the law issues – the AILA Scientific Commission of Forensic Linguistics is to support the study of the link between language and the law in all its forms. Linguistic evidence is mostly provided in two broad categories: evidence on communication and evidence on authorship. (Gibbons, 2005)


[8] Schema or schemata can represent knowledge at all levels, from ideologies and cultural truths to knowledge about the meaning of a particular word, to knowledge about what patterns of excitations are associated with what letters of the alphabet. We have schemata to represent all levels of our experience, at all levels of abstraction. Finally, our schemata are our knowledge. All of our generic knowledge is embedded in schemata. (Rumelhart, 1980)


[9] The Supreme Court will soon decide on a legal issue closely related to the conduit model, on the matter of Aifang Ye v. U.S. before the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.  The issue is whether an out-of-court statement made through an interpreter can be introduced without subjecting the interpreter to cross-examination.   A petition for a writ of certiorari for the 9th Circuit has been filed in the SCOTUS since the 9th circuit and a few other circuits are still holding that interpreters are mere language conduits.  The likelihood for the conduit model to disappear is very high. See


[10] Cognitive interpretation or intralinguistic comprehension (not translation or language switching)


[11] Close/closed communication in the sense of proximity or intimacy between close interlocutors and in terms of exclusivity expected in private conversations.


[12] Contextualized refers to shared knowledge, lived experiences and other commonalities conveyed in discourses and references that ‘ring a bell’ in the minds of the parties co-constructing meaning but not in the interpreter’s mind.


[13] De-contextualized (or devoid of context).


[14] A locutionary act is the saying of something which is meaningful and can be understood. For example, saying the sentence Shoot the snake is a locutionary act if hearers understand the words shoot, the, snake and can identify the particular snake referred to.


[15] An illocutionary act is using a sentence or utterance to perform a function. For example Shoot the snake may be intended as an order or a piece of advice.


[16] A perlocutionary act is the results or effects that are produce by means of saying something.  For example shooting the snake would be a perlocutionary act.


[17] Variables such as age, gender, level of education, ethnicity and social class that affect how people talk.


[18] “Implicature is a technical term in the pragmatics subfield of linguistics, coined by H. P. Grice, which refers to what is suggested in an utterance, even though neither expressed nor strictly implied (that is, entailed) by the utterance.[1] For example, the sentence “Mary had a baby and got married” strongly suggests that Mary had the baby before the wedding, but the sentence would still be strictly true if Mary had her baby after she got married.” (Wikipedia). “Implicature” denotes either (i) the act of meaning or implying one thing by saying something else, or (ii) the object of that act. Implicatures can be part of sentence meaning or dependent on conversational context, and can be conventional (in different senses) or unconventional. Figures of speech such as metaphor, irony, and understatement provide familiar examples. Implicature serves a variety of goals beyond communication: maintaining good social relations, misleading without lying, style, and verbal efficiency. Knowledge of common forms of implicature is acquired along with one’s native language at an early age. Conversational implicatures have become one of the principal subjects of pragmatics. A related issue is the degree to which sentence meaning determines what is said. Implicature has been invoked for a variety of purposes, from defending controversial semantic claims in philosophy to explaining lexical gaps in linguistics. H. P. Grice,  who coined the term “implicature,” and classified the phenomenon, developed an influential theory to explain and predict conversational implicatures, and describe how they arise and are understood.”(Davies, 2014)

[Pilar Cal-Meyer has served the courts of Massachusetts for over 23 years. She has also worked as a medical, conference, and community interpreter. Currently Pilar is the only expert witness in the Massachusetts trial courts with a background in Applied Linguistics. She co-authored a chapter on forensic transcription translation for the new edition of Fundamentals of Court Interpretation: Theory, Policy, and Practice (Carolina Academic Press, 2012) with Dr. Roseann Gonzalez Dueñas. In February, 2016, she wrote a linguistic framework on the interpreter as a language conduit fallacy for an amicus brief on a confrontation clause issue submitted to the Supreme Court. Pilar holds a Master’s degree in Applied Linguistics from the University of Massachusetts with concentration studies on Second Language Acquisition and English as a Second Language, and a Bachelor’s degree in Biological Sciences from the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México (UNAM). Pilar asserts that pragmatics is a core component of communication, and that is why she is committed to propagating awareness on the subject among colleague interpreters. She has also endeavored to promote policies and practices conducive to the professionalization and advancement of court interpreting, which she considers the main channel to language access and ideally to equal justice.]

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