Language rights and linguistic justice in international law: Lost in translation?

Jacqueline Mowbray


A range of international legal provisions guarantee rights to translation for linguistic minorities in certain circumstances, but these do not always lead to linguistic justice. This article explores why this may be the case, focusing on how assumptions embedded in international law as to the role of translation and interpretation limit the extent to which international language rights can deliver linguistic justice. Drawing on insights from other disciplines, particularly sociolinguistics and translation and interpreting studies, I identify four flawed assumptions about translation embedded in international legal discourse: that translation is straightforward or easy; that translation is expensive and impractical; that translation is just about words; and that translation is neutral or apolitical. Each of these flawed assumptions limit the ability of international law to achieve justice for minority language speakers.


International law; human rights; language rights; linguistic justice; translation

Full Text: PDF



Angermeyer, Philipp S. 2013. “Multilingual speakers and language choice in the legal sphere.” Applied Linguistics Review 4 (1): 105–126.

Angermeyer, Philipp S. 2015. Speak English or what? Codeswitching and interpreter use in New York city courts. New York: Oxford University Press.

Angermeyer, Philipp S. 2017. “Controlling Roma refugees with ‘Google-Hungarian’: Indexing deviance, contempt, and belonging in Toronto’s linguistic landscape.” Language in Society 46 (2): 159–183.

Berk-Seligson, Susan. 1988. “The impact of politeness in witness testimony: The influence of the court interpreter.” Multilingua 7 (4): 411–439.

Berk-Seligson, Susan. 1989. “The role of register in the bilingual courtroom: Evaluative reactions to interpreted testimony.” International Journal of the Sociology of Language 79: 79–81.

Brannan, James. 2010. ECHR Case-law on the right to language assistance in criminal proceedings and the EU response.

Braun, David. 2015. “Indexicals.” Stanford encyclopedia of philosophy.

Cao, Deborah. 2019. “Dilemmas in translating legal terms between Chinese and English.” In Legal translation: Current issues and challenges in research, methods and applications, edited by Ingrid Simmonæs & Marita Kristiansen, 301–314. Berlin: Frank & Timme.

Capan, Zeynep Gulsah, Filipe dos Reis & Maj Grasten, eds. 2021. The politics of translation in international relations. Cham: Palgrave Macmillan.

Evans, Jonathan & Fruela Fernández, eds. 2018. The Routledge handbook of translation and politics. London: Routledge.

Hale, Sandra B. 2004. The discourse of court interpreting. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

Haviland, John B. 2003. “Ideologies of language. Some reflections on language and U.S. law.” American Anthropologist 105 (4): 764–774.

Killman, Jeffrey. 2020. “Translation in the shadows of interpreting in US court systems: Standards, guidelines and practice.” In Institutional translation and interpreting: Assessing practices and managing for quality, edited by Fernando Prieto Ramos, 62–83. New York: Routledge.

Lambertini Andreotti, Julia. 2016. Comprehension of legal discourse in interpreter-mediated judicial proceedings. Unpublished PhD dissertation, Departament d'Estudis Anglesos i Alemanys, Universitat Rovira i Virgili.

Leung, Janny HC. 2014. “Translation equivalence as legal fiction.” In The Ashgate handbook of legal translation, edited by Le Cheng, King Kui Sin & Anne Wagner, 57–69. Abingdon: Ashgate.

Macdonald, Fiona. 2015. “The greatest mistranslations ever.” BBC Culture.

Mason, Marianne. 2015. “The role of interpreters in adjudicating blame: An examination of clitics and active–passive voice in a Spanish–English bilingual criminal trial.” Translation and Interpreting Studies 10 (2): 187–202.

Mellinger, Christopher D. 2017. “Equal access to the courts in translation: A corpus-driven study on translation shifts in waivers of counsel.” Perspectives 25 (2): 308–322.   

Monzó-Nebot, Esther. 2018. “Translation and culture in legal settings and institutions.” In The Routledge handbook of translation and culture, edited by Sue-Ann Harding & Ovidi Carbonell i Cortés, 463–482. Abingdon: Routledge.

Monzó-Nebot, Esther. 2020. “Translation, power, ethics. Challenging injustice in cross-cultural understanding and cooperation.” Linguapax Review 8: 13–31.

Moore, David. “Closing the gap in legal communication: The challenges of interpreting indigenous languages in Central Australian courts.” In Translating and interpreting in Australia and New Zealand: Distance and diversity, edited by Judy Wakabayashi & Minako O’Hagan, 23–43. New York: Routledge.

Mowbray, Jacqueline. 2012. Linguistic justice: International law and language policy. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Mowbray, Jacqueline. 2017. “Translation as marginalisation? International law, translation and the status of linguistic minorities.” In Translation and public policy: Interdisciplinary perspectives and case studies, edited by Gabriel González-Núñez & Reine Meylaerts, 32–57. New York: Routledge.

Muñoz Martín, Ricardo & Ana María Rojo López. 2021. “Meaning.” In The Routledge handbook of translation and culture, edited by Sue-Ann Harding & Ovidi Carbonell i Cortés, 61–78. Abingdon: Routledge.

Ng, Kwai Hang. 2009. “Beyond court interpreters: Exploring the idea of designated Spanish-speaking courtrooms to address language barriers to justice in the United States.” In Access to justice, edited by Rebecca L. Sandefur, 97–118. Bingley: Emerald Group.

Nord, Christiane. 2006. Text analysis in translation: Theory, methodology, and didactic application of a model for translation-oriented text analysis. Amsterdam: Rodopi.

Paz, Moria. 2013. “The failed promise of language rights: A critique of the international language rights regime.” Harvard International Law Journal 54: 157–218.

Peled, Yael. 2018. “Language barriers and epistemic injustice in healthcare settings.” Bioethics 32 (6): 360–367.

Piller, Ingrid. 2016. Linguistic diversity and social justice: An introduction to applied sociolinguistics. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Ramsden, Irihapeti M. 1992. Kawa whakaruruhau: Cultural safety in New Zealand. Ministry of Education (Wellington).

Reddy, Michael. 1979. “The conduit metaphor.” Metaphor and Thought 2: 285–324.

Smith-Khan, Laura. 2022. “Incorporating sociolinguistic perspectives in Australian refugee credibility assessments: The case of CRL18.” Journal of International Migration and Integration.

Stern, Ludmila. 2018. “Legal interpreting in domestic and international courts: Responsiveness in action.” In The Routledge handbook of language and superdiversity, edited by Angela Creese & Adrian Blackledge, 396–410. Abingdon: Routledge.

Thornberry, Patrick & María Amor Martín Estébanez. 2004. Minority rights in Europe: A review of the work and standards of the Council of Europe. Strasbourg: Council of Europe Publishing.

Vogiatzis, Nikos. 2022. “Interpreting the right to interpretation under Article 6(3)(e) ECHR: A cautious evolution in the jurisprudence of the European Court of Human Rights?” Human Rights Law Review 22 (1): 1–25.


  • There are currently no refbacks.