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The Oscar-winning Coda and its (mis)representation of interpreting (or, why I almost walked out of the cinema)

Ok so I'm a linguist not a movie critic but I am an avid movie-goer - part of the generation of Australians raised by Margaret and David to appreciate cinema and think critically about it. (I've even reviewed a few things on this blog: Short-doco Queen of the Desert, short film Lärr and some discussion of the brilliant Croker Island Exodus here). 

At this years Oscars, the film Coda surprised many by taking out Best Picture. It seems like few people have even had a chance to see it. Here in little ol' Katherine, we have a brilliant film society at our local Katherine 3 cinema, where each fortnight we get to watch something a bit different. In late 2021, I had the chance to see Coda there, long before it was thought of as an Oscar contender. Now that Coda is being talked about more than ever before, I wanted to share my experience of watching the film - especially because in one scene in particular, I was so angry that I genuinely considered walking out of the cinema - which would have been a first for me!

Overall, Coda (an acronym for Child/ren of Deaf Adults) has a lot going for it: excellent performances including by some inexperienced actors who bring authenticity to their roles as deaf users of American Sign Language. The film gives hearing non-signers a window into the lives of deaf people that most of us won't otherwise experience. And as a linguist, it's pretty cool to see linguistic minorities represented on the big screen and have issues like language discrimination touched upon in cinema.

I actually liked the film overall. So what happened to make me nearly walk out?

Well, something in the film hit me hard as a Kriol-English interpreter who has spent years in and around courts, providing linguistic assistance to Kriol speakers as they attempt to negotiate the bizarre, foreign world of the Australian justice system. Note also that in discussing this, I'm not trying to act appalled on behalf of the deaf community. I don't need to. I am within my rights to be aggrieved as an experienced court interpreter. 

So what happened? Early on in Coda, one scene shows the deaf parents at the doctors, and their daughter acts as their interpreter. This is often labelled 'ad-hoc interpreting', where no qualified or professional interpreter is used, but instead a family member or someone nearby fills the language gap as best they can. It happens a lot and differs from the use of a trained interpreter (the academic literature often calls us 'professional interpreters' and I will use this term here too but with a big asterisk pointing out that for Indigenous Australian language interpreters, it is generally impossible to get officially accredited to a "professional" level - there just isn't the testing available). 

The issues with ad-hoc interpreting are that the doctor and patients risk experiencing bias and personal involvement on behalf of the interpreter and the clear, accurate flow of information is typically jeopardised. It can also be traumatic and stressful for children to be obligated to perform such roles (and you'd think especially when you have to interpret stuff about your parents sex life like in Coda!). The advantages of ad-hoc interpreting are obviously convenience, so there does seem to be debate on how and where both types of interpreting (ad-hoc and professional) can be utilised in health settings. (Here's an example of further research on this topic). 

Back to Coda though - this doctor-patient-adhoc-interpreter scene is early on in the film and, while it irked me a little, it's not the scene that really bothered me. The function of this scene seems more to contextualise the characters - the internal dynamics of the family and the external dynamics of how they interface with hearing-dominant society. And it's used for comedic value too which you can see in this partial clip here: 


But again, this scene didn't worry me too much because despite its problems I could see its function as a scene-setting device.

Skip through to the film's dramatic climax though and we arrive at a scene that really made me bristle. I've never walked out of a cinema before but boy did I have a visceral urge to storm out in disgust. Instead, I think I just sighed really loudly and annoyingly and waited til my blood stopped boiling and could settle down enough to somewhat enjoy the film's conclusion. 

This scene was during the dramatic peak of the film, when the family's fishing business is threatened over losing their licence for not meeting maritime regulations. The father appears in a local court over the matter. But again, we see the daughter acting as her father's ad-hoc interpreter but this time, in court, interpreting for the judge. If I was able to somewhat accept the doctor scene... this one? Absolutely no way.

Courts and judges know that people appearing before them have the absolute right to understand their court matter. Lawyers know this too. I would also suggest that most if not all deaf people know this too. It is enshrined in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (Article 14) which forms part of the International Bill of Human Rights. Without an interpreter, a defendant who doesn't speak the language of the court is not receiving the fair trial they are entitled to. 

But in the scene in Coda, there was an interpreter there: the daughter. And yes she is clearly bilingual in English and American Sign Language and does interpret. What's the issue? The issue is there is NO WAY a court should be allowing an ad-hoc interpreter to act as the court's interpreter and interpret for a family member. The daughter character is untrained and has a clear conflict of interest. The judge has no quality assurance that justice is being served and no assurance that the rights of the defendant to a fair trial are being met. I can't believe the makers of this movie decided this scene - offered with no critical discourse around it - was in any way acceptable.

But what does it matter?

Well, it's incredibly frustrating because as a court interpreter, I've witnessed many many instances of a judge or a lawyer or a police prosecutor not working with or providing an interpreter appropriately. The number of times I've seen a Kriol speaker clearly struggle to understand and no-one has thought to get them an interpreter. The number of times I've seen a judge or a prosecutor do things like speak too fast for the interpreter to interpret, dismiss the need for the interpreter to interpret certain parts of the court matter or a thousand other tiny little practices that attest to how poorly courts and the justice system often deal with people who need linguistic support to appropriately engage. (Dima Rusho's 2021 thesis is an exceptional read covering this topic (among others) in relation to Kriol speakers specifically. And don't get me wrong - I've seen plenty of judges and legal professionals do the right thing too). 

For years, I've watched cheap-shot reality TV shows like Border Security show Australians that it's acceptable practice to leave people with language needs high and dry when they deserve and are entitled to interpreters. For Coda - a film carefully composed and designed to offer real insights and empathy to lives of deaf signers - to also show audiences how *not* to use interpreters appropriately I found appalling and lowkey negligent. I've spent too much energy over the years justifying my own existence as an interpreter to legal professionals to consider Coda's portrayal of court interpreting acceptable. 

Lastly, I'd like to point out that I'm certainly not the only person to have noticed some of these issues. Several media articles and individuals have pointed out that in America, the deaf characters in Coda would be required to have qualified interpreters under the Americans with Disabilities Act. This article from The Atlantic spoke to a deaf writer, Sarah Katz, who said that she "found the Rossi family’s reliance on Ruby unrealistic at times, specifically during a legal hearing" and that "in such a setting, the family would have had access to a professional interpreter". According to that article, Katz said she wasn’t sure whether she’d endorse the movie for a fellow deaf person. This post-Oscars article from the New York Times is another piece doing a good job of exploring the interpreting issue and other problems some people are having with Coda. (Hat tip to Ludmila Stern and the Law Linguistics Network for that link).

So yeah. Give Coda a watch. I think there's lots of interesting stuff in there. But please view with the interpreting scenes through a critical lens. The court interpreting scene in particular is one that should never have made its way on to cinema screens.

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