Steve at languagehat takes up an article by Janet Malcolm in the New Yorker (abstract available here, full article only on subscription). The subject is a murder trial requiring written translation of an audiotape in Russian and Bukhori (a dialect of Persian spoken by the Bukharian Jews in Central Asia). It seems that the audiotape was difficult to hear and the translator made a number of errors, although there isn’t enough evidence as to why. The biggest misunderstanding was very favourable to the prosecution – one person to another, travelling in a car, saying ‘Are you getting off?’ but translated as ‘Are you going to make me happy?’ – the verb used is described as odd by commenters to the languagehat entry, and was apparently hard to hear anyway.
I haven’t got the full article, but I find some curious features:
One can imagine the translator’s own happiness when he heard those lines—and Leventhal’s when he read them in the transcript.
Leventhal was the main prosecutor. I don’t know why the translator would be happy.
We go through life mishearing and misseeing and misunderstanding so that the stories we tell ourselves will add up. Trial lawyers push this human tendency to a higher level. They are playing for higher stakes than we are playing for when we tinker with actuality in order to transform the tale told by an idiot into an orderly, self-serving narrative.
This raises a number of questions. The prosecution should certainly not be playing for high stakes if this means getting a conviction on the basis of one translated sentence – they would have to have a lot more to convince them. Prosecution should not be about convicting people at all costs. And if two people are in a car, then ‘Are you getting off?’ is not exactly a tale told by an idiot that needs to be reconstrued to make sense.
(I’ve read at least three books by Janet Malcolm, all of which were excellent – most recently ‘Two Lives – Gertrude and Alice’, but here I have not enough to go on).
LATER NOTE (and spoiler): I did actually get the whole article. It’s extremely interesting and is mainly a psychological study of what we know of people in court cases. It’s clear there will be an appeal. The problem with the audiotape transcription strongly suggests this was unreliable evidence, but in the context of the whole, it appears just one piece in the mosaic. One has the impression that the trial was unfair to the defendants and to the defence counsel, but nevertheless that the defendant Borukhova may have been correctly convicted.