Translating Miranda warnings

The ABA Journal had an article on Miranda warnings online recently (link does not work 2020). The U.S. Supreme Court will be dealing with four cases this autumn where Miranda warnings are involved.

This term the court will decide whether police may intentionally question a suspect without a warning of his or her rights and then use the answers, including physical evidence revealed, in court against the suspect.

Underlying those issues is the question of whether Miranda warnings represent a true right for the individual and a red light for police. Or, are the warnings just a caution sign, which may go unheeded by both the suspect and the police?

It quotes the text of the warning:

Before we ask you any questions, you must understand your rights.You have the right to remain silent. Anything you say can and will be used against you in a court of law.
You have the right to talk to a lawyer for advice before we ask you any questions and to have him with you during questioning. If you cannot afford a lawyer, one will be appointed for you before any questioning if you wish.
If you decide to answer questions now without a lawyer present, you will still have the right to stop answering at any time. You also have the right to stop answering at any time until you talk to a lawyer.
Do you understand these rights?

(There was a 1966 case, Miranda v. Arizona, where the U.S. Supreme Court established these rights: the right to remaind silent, to have an attorney present, and to have an attorney appointed if the suspect is poor – an arresting officer must advise the person being arrested – I quote Merriam Webster’s Dictionary of Law).

Now Taccuino di Traduzione has linked to a newspaper article in the Hollister Free Lance on the problems of getting the warning translated for non-English-speaking suspects.

If the warning is not understood properly, there can be problems with the acceptance of evidence in court.

It reminds me that some years ago a survey found that the police caution in England, the equivalent of Miranda warnings, was found to be incomprehensible to the majority of the population. It was somewhat simplified then.

The Oxford Dictionary of Law gives the wording of the English caution:

You do not have to say anything. But it may harm your defence if you do not mention when questioned something which you later rely on in court. Anything you do say may be given in evidence.

Of course, the reduction of the right of silence is rather shameful and came in a few years ago.

At the 1999 conference of the IAFL, the International Association of Forensic Linguistics, there was a symposium on the caution. Here is the abstsract of the contribution by Roger Shuy, of Georgetown University, Washington DC:

The Role of Forensic Linguistics in the Rise and Decline of Miranda Warnings in the United States
Beginning with a description of the historical development of Miranda Warnings in 1966, this paper will address the resulting controversies about how the Miranda vs. Arizona Supreme Court ruling should be interpreted and carried out. It is not surprising to linguists, who know that language is central to law on virtually all levels, that these disputes are linguistic ones. In the case of Miranda, most salient are the language of the police as well as the warning itself, the language context in which the warning is given, and the language contributions of the suspect, all of which combine to make meaning in a holistic manner. From its very beginning, Miranda has placed unwanted burdens on law enforcement and it is perhaps natural that the past three decades display many instances of how it is being subverted, if not ignored. Since many of the efforts to oppose, change, or abandon Miranda contain arguments which are clearly within the domain of linguistic analysis, this paper argues for linguists to add their expertise to the debate.

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