Translation problems in murder trial/Übersetzungsprobleme in Mordverhandlung

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.

9 thoughts on “Translation problems in murder trial/Übersetzungsprobleme in Mordverhandlung

  1. “Prosecution should not be about convicting people at all costs.”

    Correct me if I’m wrong, but I thought that was the biggest difference between common law and the Napoleonic code (please excuse my ignorance — you are speaking to a Louisiana native, and those are our layman’s terms, but I think you know what I’m getting at). In Germany, I am told that all lawyers and judges involved in the case have basically the same job, which is to find out the truth. This is certainly not the case in the US, as a number of wonderful movies (like The Man Who Wasn’t There) attest.

    • Yes, we call the two systems common law and civil law (which means ‘civil law’ has two meanings). You are right up to a point. It isn’t part of the common law system for the court to find the truth. (In practice, it isn’t in most cases practicable to go far towards finding the truth in the courts of civil-law countries either, but the attempt is expected). However, the common-law prosecution should not be 100% driven by a desire to win, unlike the plaintiff in civil cases.

      I haven’t got my library here, so I will just refer to the duties of the Crown Prosecution Service in England and Wales:
      [url][/url] – just to show that there are limits to wholehearted prosecution.

  2. “However, the common-law prosecution should not be 100% driven by a desire to win, unlike the plaintiff in civil cases.”

    Whatever ethical/moral force that idea may have, I’m pretty sure it’s irrelevant to actual practice in the U.S., where the prosecution is in fact 100% driven by a desire to win (just as is the defense).

    • Yes, I take your point, but I’m just not so sure there’s a radical difference between the approach of the prosecution in civil-law and common-law systems – although of course the lawyers dominate the stage in the latter, the judge in the former. (And I don’t know much about the way the presence of a jury affects procedure in the various countries – certainly the jury selection process in the USA is a peculiarity).

  3. Whatever ethical/moral force that idea may have, I’m pretty sure it’s irrelevant to actual practice in the U.S., where the prosecution is in fact 100% driven by a desire to win

  4. Handelsblatt’s calling it “Copygate”. :-)

    My son did his first degree in the US (Tufts) and his Masters in the UK (King’s, London). Certainly in the US, and I think in the UK as well, term papers, essays, etc. were automatically checked for plagiarism by an online system that wouldn’t accept the work if plagiarism was detected (it happened to my son a couple of times in the US because of articles he’d already published – the system apparently wasn’t designed to cope with the idea that undergraduates could have actually published anything already …). I think his MA thesis underwent a similar process.

    Do German universities have some sort of online system where students have to submit work for plagiarism checking?

    There was an article in the ATA Chronicle (last year, I think) addressing the issue of plagiarism in translation. The author suggested that every bit of text in a translation lifted from another source should be acknowledged (e.g. in a footnote). While I can see the point of this for references to scholarly research, books, etc. (though normally the reference will be contained in the source text already), I wonder how this is supposed to work in practice for everyday translations, considering that a lot of good translation is the art of intelligent recycling. What sources are we supposed to cite, I wonder, for standard text such as:

    “The accompanying consolidated financial statements were prepared in accordance with the IFRSs issued by the IASB, as adopted by the EU”


    “Intangible assets are recognised at cost and amortised using over their useful lives using the straight-line method”

    or boilerplate legal text, such as severability clauses?

  5. And a quick PS. This is surely a great excuse to recall the very apt lyrics in one of the verses of Tom Lehrer’s great song “Lobachevsky”:

    Let no one else

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