Category Archives: WORDS


I once bought my niece a birthday card with a language joke on it.  Two girlfriends are sitting in a cafe, and one casually asks, “So where’s your birthday party gonna be at?”  The ultra correct friend replies, “You can’t say that!  You are not supposed to end a sentence with a preposition!” So the friend says, “Oh! Okay!  So where’s your birthday party gonna be at, bitch?”

I personally hate the word bitch, but I still found the card funny, because language is such an organic and transforming thing, so free, that no matter how many rules we set down, the language is still there to be played with.  And yes, I just ended that last sentence with a preposition, as proof of my assertion.

There are two kinds of grammar – prescriptive and descriptive.  English teachers are considered prescriptive – telling students how they “should” talk.  I remember teachers admonishing us working class students to follow strict middle-class standard rules in order to “sound educated”.  Unlike English teachers, linguists are descriptive, simply observing and documenting how people do talk, rather than prescribing what is correct.  Sociologists have also stepped in to clarify the ways in which privilege and social capital, if you will, impact the ways in which we choose (or have less choice) in how we communicate.

For English especially, as a global language with twice as many non-native speakers as native speakers, language “correctness” is an  endless source of thought and discussion.  You may (or may not) be born with English as your mother tongue, but however you decide the language “should” be used, there are many more people using it in their own way (simplified grammar, words picked up from popular culture, local flavor) than people who can or want to use it “correctly”.  And why not?  Take a tool of historical oppression and use it for your own purposes, I say.  On many occasions I have observed that two non-native speakers of English can get along with their simplified streamlined English better than if either of them are stuck with a native speaker who cannot manage to use “global English” understandably.

As interpreters, we obviously are not going to correct anyone’s speech in either language.  That is out of our domain.  But we still have to make the word choices for every single sentence we utter.  Theoretically, we are trained to “maintain the register” of the original utterance.  So if a judge or lawyer is using highly technical language, we are not allowed to clarify, simplify, explain, or otherwise change what is said.  The non-English speaker is to be just as mystified as the English speaker would be.  We are to place them in the position of the English speaker, even if that is not a very nice position.

Fair enough.  Or unfair enough.  But in practice, many terms that are widely known in English jurisprudence are culturally bound concepts that may not even have an equivalent in the target culture and therefore in the target language.  Think about something like your Miranda rights.  There was a case that went up to the US Supreme Court in which a defendant whose last name was Miranda claimed he did not realize that he had the right to remain silent, the right to an attorney, the right to a public defender if he couldn’t afford one.  And he also didn’t know that anything he said at that point could be used against him in court.  The Supreme Court ruled that his confession could not be used against him because he had not been told what his rights were.

Why?  Most US citizens will easily answer that we have the absolute right not to testify against ourselves.  We call it the Fifth Amendment to the US Constitution.  Instead of saying “I have the right not to testify against myself” we simply say “I take the fifth”.  Across the dominant culture, this phrase clearly conveys “I maintain my right to not incriminate myself”.   So should interpreters say literally “I take the fifth”?  I would argue that we cannot because it becomes nonsensical.  A fifth of what?  A fifth of whiskey?  There is also a regional phrase in my target language for a place that is very remote and far away (in the boonies) that is “the fifth anus of the world”.  Don’t ask me why, but apparently by the time you get to the fifth anus, it is a place that few people need to get to.  Language is so fraught with peril.

Back to the fifth in question.  The right to remain silent and the rest of it have come to be called Miranda Warnings, and most people in mainstream culture have an idea of what that means.  Law enforcement tends to be careful about giving them so any confession is not later thrown out.  This is exactly the kind of thing interpreters are not allowed to explain.  It is impossible and even unethical for interpreters to explain all the legal terms we hear.  The assigned lawyer is the one who has the job of explaining the legal concepts.  We are just interpreting their explanation.  So if a shy or scared immigrant dares not ask what the lawyer is talking about, they will have no way to find out.  And there is nothing the interpreter can do.

Beyond strictly culture-bound words like Miranda Warnings, we have to deal with certain terms that are well understood and common in the source language, but whose counterpart is more obscure in the target language.  In these cases, the English speaker easily understands a term, but the immigrant hearing the “correct” term will likely not understand it in the target language.  What do we do?  Do we prescriptively say “the correct” word, or do we use a term that is much more likely to be understood?  This is a theoretical question that plays out once we interpreters have to choose a specific word.  Because we each have our personal lexicons developed throughout our lives, we each have an affinity for certain vocabulary either because it seems correct to us or we believe it to be clearer.

Interpreters tend to fall into two camps on this question.  Some of us use the language just a little bit more loosely, to make our best attempt at actually communicating the information given in the most accurate but also understandable way.  Others have argued in our professional trainings and discussions that we as interpreters should “hold up the bar” and always use correct terms, even if the defendants do not understand them.  Thus we can educate them along the way, so that eventually (if they get arrested often enough) we can all speak correctly and keep the language untainted.

I believe the vast majority of interpreters would say they want both correctness and communication, and in a perfect world those two items would be found in the one perfect term.   And for most terms, there is such an equivalent.  But in some cases we have a dilemma.  Do we want to be right, or do we want to be rightly understood?

A good example of such a term is Public Defender.  In the US, most people understand that is a lawyer who works for the government and will represent you at no cost.  So some interpreters decided to call it “free lawyer”.  But that became a problem, because there is a local program where you can qualify for a public defender even if you are above the income limit (but below the income where you could afford to pay for a private attorney).  In those cases, you can get a public defender and pay them a fraction of the cost of a private attorney.  Last time I saw it, it was 600 dollars for a fairly simple misdemeanor case.  So we really cannot say “you have a free lawyer and you have to pay 600 dollars.”  The term becomes inaccurate.

In some countries, there is a special term that translates back to English as “lawyer by profession” that is used for a government-appointed attorney.  But I noticed that people didn’t seem to understand it.  So I tried the term out on half a dozen native speakers outside of court, and nobody knew what it meant except that it was some kind of a lawyer.  I asked people from various countries including bilingual people with graduate degrees, and one conversation went like this (in the target language):

What is a “lawyer by profession”?

A lawyer.

What kind of lawyer?

No idea.

How must do they charge?

How would I know?

Who assigned them?

No idea.

What does the “by profession” mean to you then?

It means their profession is that they are a lawyer – they are a “lawyer by profession”.

When I informed one of my guinea pigs that that it was a proposed term for public defender (using a term that reflects the English this time) he shrugged his shoulders and asked, “Why don’t you just say that then?”

That in fact is what I do now, although I know some of my grammarian colleagues feel I may be lowering the standards and not upholding the language.  They are the ones in the camp for keeping the target language unsullied, and educating the non-English speakers with the correct terms.

I did some online research on the topic and found a great and heated discussion between two long-term interpreters.  The upshot of the drawn-out discussion after much citing, much quoting, and much referencing to solid proof to justify their respective positions, was summed up in the last two entries:

(Prescriptive version): If you don’t say “attorney by profession” you are incorrect!  It is the only correct way to say it!

(Descriptive version): You are correct.  The only correct way to say it is “attorney by profession”.  So go ahead and say that if you wish to be correct.  However, if like me you actually wish to be UNDERSTOOD by the defendant, you will have to say “public defender”.

Of course, we can go into circular arguments on this.  If every single interpreter agreed to “hold up the bar” and consistently used the “correct” term, in a perfect world, all defendants new and old would become educated about this and all other legal terms and even start speaking the Queen’s English and whatever royal version there is in their home language.  Such a linguistic paradise would be heavenly to some, and a bit of a bore to others.  My personal experience is that language is gloriously organic and will continue to grow like a garden, no matter how much the privileged few assiduously weed and prune it.  And I find that life-affirming and joyful.










Did you know that in some vernaculars, the noun “ass” can be used as a versatile add-on to enhance the flavor and smell of almost any adjective or noun?  Yes, it is true.  A little three-letter bit of spice.  Hang it onto the back end of the concept you wish to emphasize, and good-ass luck to you.

Heard in court waiting areas:

(in frustration) I’m sick and tired of these fucking court-ass people!

(in trepidation) It’s raining like hell and I got these big old shiny-ass shoes that are gonna get filthy.

(in deprecation) He’s such a stupid-ass he don’t even know I dumped his ass.  He still calling me!

And an old favorite, for which (although I hate woman-bashing in general and mother-bashing in particular) I retain a certain fondness because of its sheer amplitude:                                                                              Shut your face, you mother-fucking army dick-ass.

So remember, almost any adjective or noun.  Try it for yourself.  Don’t be a tight-ass.  It will just make you seem sorry-ass.  And you don’t want your friends to consider you anything less than kick-ass, right?


When I was growing up, I understood “will call” to be a place in the back of a furniture store where you would drive your truck around and pick up something like a heavy couch.   As an adult, I heard it used mostly to mean going to the box office to pick up event tickets.  I also knew that an early bird is someone who gets up early.  So when jail guards started using these two terms to mean late arrivals, I was confused.  Contrary to my logic, instead of early arrival and convenience, these terms are used to mean late and inconvenient.  Strange.  I asked my favorite guard to explain it to me during a quiet moment, and he said he had never really thought about it, since the terms are so well understood among the workers.

If an inmate has been deemed a higher security risk, he will not be sent down with the others as a group, but will be left in his cell until called for, and then brought down individually.  This might be because of some kind of an outburst, a fight, an attempt at self-harm, or other situation where the guards determine that this person should travel in a higher security manner.  As a result, a will call by definition is not going to be waiting for the interpreter and defense attorney at the jailhouse courtroom.  Rather, I will be waiting until a guard is free to transport the will call, which could take any length of time.

Likewise, an early bird is not an inmate who arrives for the hearing early.  An early bird had an earlier hearing at another court and will be transported first to that court to attend the hearing, then back to lockup, and then down to the courtroom that is located in the jail complex.  So the interpreter can spend any length of time waiting for an early bird.  An early bird, to be perfectly clear, will be late.

In talking at length with the guard, we agreed that the most accurate rephrasing of will call might be “high security” or “waiting for individual transport” whereas early bird might be “delayed by prior hearing”.  Just another reminder that languages in actually practice do not have simple one-to-one equivalents.

These are the kinds of terms that really make interpreters have to stay on their toes, and imagining most of the interpreters I know, myself included, in a pink tutu and “on our toes” helps bring home the message that our work is not that easy at the best of times.  So why is it so much fun?  Maybe because we find language fascinating.




A judge used the term snafu, and I had to wonder if she knew what it means and what a new and strange word it is.  SNAFU is an acronym reportedly invented in the military around World War II and stands for Situation Normal, All Fucked Up.   The Oxford English Dictionary further explained that it was “an expression conveying the common soldier’s laconic acceptance of the disorder of war and the ineptitude of his superiors”.

Like most words, it has transformed itself into something for use in much different situations, with few people even aware of its origins.  I interpreted it as “problem” on the fly.  Then I looked it up, and some of the target language translations include putting your foot in it, problem, chaos, confusion, holdup, and error.  All of those meanings and many more and now within the jurisdiction of SNAFU.

I cannot help wondering about the personality of the soldier, perhaps a humorist, who first thought of this acronym, and the path by which his friends took it up and shared it.  How did it reach critical mass and become a “real” word?  Strange to imagine how many people must have enjoyed it in order to each in turn take the time to explain it to others and pass it along.  Surely they never imagined that this word would break out of its confines and a some decades later end up in the mouth of a judge as a routine part of her vocabulary.  I think the inventor and his friends would laugh at that.


Today I needed to render the phrase directed by a judge to a very young defendant, “kick your knucklehead friends to the curb.”   The context was that this young fellow’s friends were not going to be allowed into the family home if he got sent home on house arrest.  The parents were very clear that they would accept him home from detention only with the electronic home monitoring bracelet (actually an anklet) and no friends in the house.  So the judge was trying to render that information back to the young defendant in terms that he would understand on an emotional level, with a touch of humor and down-home familiarity commonly used in Juvenile Court.

Knucklehead is interesting to me.  It means someone whom you might rap on the head with your knuckles and find a hard surface there.  Either because the person is stubborn and unyielding or because they are stupid.  I understood the judge to mean more that these young disreputable friends are less than intelligent rather than intransigent.  I had to make that call, because it wasn’t the kind of thing in my judgment that warranted interrupting the proceedings on the record and formally requesting that the judge disambiguate his intended meaning when using knucklehead.

I noted that the judge hadn’t said dumb or stupid – he easily could have, but he avoided these terms, so I didn’t want to use them as first choice. As to using a more slang word for dodo, dumbo, doofus, etc., the problem in my target language is that the most commonly used word happens to be a swear word and something a judge would not be expected to say to a young person, or anyone else, from the bench.  It comes across as rather shocking in many regions if used in anything but the most casual of settings, such as two teens joking about.  It could sound as harsh as dumbshit, shithead, or even fuckwad, depending on where this family is from and their linguistic practices around swearing.

In the flash of that moment, interpreting for parents on speaker phone in a courtroom full of lawyers, staff, probation counselors, prosecutors, guards and others, this interpreter chose not to bring any swearing into the situation.  She also avoided the actual word “stupid” as that still seemed harsher than the judge’s clear choice in opting for something a bit more humorous.  It helped that the young person himself had likely already gotten the gist of in English, as he was not using the interpreter, so to the non-English speaking parents on the phone it was rendered as “throw out your (snort) not so smart friends”.

I acknowledge that snorting with a single gulp of laughter in a slightly deprecating manner is not in our textbooks, and I certainly do not make a habit of it.  I have never consciously snorted mid-sentence on the record before, to the best of my belief.  But it was my sincere and best effort split-second solution to show that when the judge said “knucklehead” he meant not so smart with a seasoning of both humor and deprecation, and my quick snort preceding the phrase “not so smart” was my best solution in the moment.

The curb kicking became more of an upper body exercise, with the not so swift friends being “thrown out” rather than kicked, but I do feel overall that I retained as much of the meaning as I could in that brief and fleeting moment.  I admit also that I will probably spend a couple hours over the next few days pondering over “knucklehead” and wondering if I could have found a better solution.  In fact I have ten minutes left om my unpaid lunch break, and what better use of my time than to research “knucklehead”?  And I know that I will discuss this with relish among colleagues as soon as the opportunity comes up.  Strange the things we enjoy.   We must be some kind of (snort) knuckleheads.


New interpreters go through hell trying to figure out the daily onslaught of acronyms used relentlessly by court regulars.

True conversation:

Judge: So this is a revo on a DWLS2 – the ECF says he was FTA for his last hearing.  And he isn’t here today.  Counsel?

Defense Attorney: Your honor, the defendant is at ABJ due to a DOC hold and due for release tomorrow.

Judge: Can we get him the OTA there?

Defense Attorney: I don’t believe so your honor but I do have a phone number for him and I ask that you not issue a warrant, especially as the City is willing to drop the DWLS2 to NoValOp.  so he is motivated to appear.

Let us attempt the translation to English that the interpreter has to do in her head before she can even begin to interpret any of this into the target language.  My understanding is as follows:

This is a revocation hearing (to decide whether to revoke bail and place the defendant in custody after failing some condition) on a case with a charge of Driving While License Suspended in the Second Degree – the Electronic Case File says that he Failed to Appear at his last hearing.  And he isn’t here today. Counsel?

Your honor, the defendant is at (name of another jail) due to an Department of Corrections Order holding him in custody.  He is due for release tomorrow.

Can we get him served with the Order To Appear (for his next hearing) there (at the jail where he is now being held?)

I don’t believe so your honor but I do have a phone number for him (and will call him to let him know about his next hearing) and I ask that you not issue a warrant, especially as the City is willing to drop the charge of Driving While License Suspended in the Second Degree  (a crime) to No Valid Operator’s License on Person (a traffic infraction), so he is motivated to appear.

. . .

In this case, the defendant was not present and did not need to have this interpreted, but it is fairly common example of how legalese is riddled with acronyms and difficult to unpack.  It also takes a lot longer to say the words instead of just letters, but the letters are nonsensical in the target languages, whereas they are completely understandable as rendered among the professionals in court.  And I submit that the acronyms that are clearly understood in court should be rendered understandable in the target language, as long as interpreters do not cross over that fine line into explanation (which is where my parentheses kick in above).


People don’t seem to realize how much slang and obscure references they make regularly.  This is exacerbated when you are speaking via an interpreter.  The other day, a judge was trying to be casual and friendly, and started off with a seemingly simple but difficult to interpret phrase.

Hey, guy!

If two men who are buddies were to greet each other, the term they would likely use means cuckold, an out-of-use English word.  The literal meaning is a man who knows his woman is being unfaithful but does nothing to defend his honor, ie does not kill the woman or the lover.  This is apparently despicable on the man’s part, and has become a common man-to-man greeting in some countries.  In others, they might say for guy, donkey.  In others, an even stronger “son-of-a-bitch” has lost its sting and would be perfectly friendly.  Some will also call each other dumbshit, a word that literally means the pubic hair that grows around the anus.  As fun and friendly as all of these terms are, none of these phrases are used woman to man and certainly not in court.  I considered also comrade, but it sounds political and is used by one revolutionary to another.  I could say some version of buddy or pal, except the judge and the defendant are really not buddies, and it comes across as patronizing.  So I end up with the most neutral and yet casual “hey hey” kind of the greeting, and the “guy” fades away into oblivion, fraught with too much peril to be rendered.

This is a fairly typical example of the kind of careless speech that is used to try and create a false sense of casual friendliness in a very formal and serious context with lifechanging consequences for the defendants.  My personal opinion is that such hey guy talk is not serving the needs of justice, but I may be biased by how much harder my job become when a judge wants to let their linguistic hair down, and I end up coughing up linguistic hairballs.

Another example, same case:

“You need to have your recovery less like a roller coaster and more like a ferris wheel.”

First of all, it doesn’t make a lot of sense to me, as it sounds like advice to skip the ups and downs of recovery and just go around in circles.  Secondly, the term I know for roller coaster is “Russian mountain” and I am not sure if that term is a regional or internationally accepted term.  Bringing Russians and mountains into the sentence could easily lead to misunderstanding.  And I don’t believe the judge meant to talk specifically about the culture-bound county fair, but rather to talk about her suggestions on the pace and style of recovery.  I find that her choice of metaphor is not very apt.  While these thoughts are rushing through my brain more words are pouring out of the judge’s mouth so I give up on my idea of finding the perfect phrase, as I would for a written translation.  I presume from context that she means “try to avoid the wild ups and downs of recovery and focus on trying to move forward at a healthy, steady pace,” and I quickly render that while rushing to catch up with the judge’s speech.  Ironically, as she talks to the recovering addict about keeping to a healthier pace to avoid another relapse, she is talking too fast.  After hovering momentarily over the ferris wheel, I do manage to catch up within her next few sentences without having to interrupt the proceedings, which we try to avoid if possible.

The judge goes on to tell him he is an “express”. I am not sure I understood her, so we end up in the following back and forth.

You are now an express.

An express?

An express.

(in Spanish to defendant) You are now an express.  An express? An express.

Judge: I can see the interpreter does not know what an express is in drug court.  You, the defendant have been coming here for so long and heard the term multiple times, so please explain to her the meaning in drug court!

(Repeat in Spanish)

(Answer in Spanish) Uh, well, an express is … I don’t know, something fast, right?

Once I interpret that back to the judge, she is dismayed to realize that the defendant doesn’t know what an “express” is either.  Apparently he has completed some early stage of treatment and is now on a fast track to something, which is never clarified.  Instead, she tells the courtroom to “put yer pads together” and I have to decide whether to use a word for the paw pads of animals, which is not used for the palms of hands in the other language, or just render the meaning, and I end up leaving the pads, paws and hands along the wayside by saying “applause” which is more natural and conveys the intended meaning, if not the specific flavor.

The judge then orders the defendant to “go fishing” which I render as “go fishing” although I don’t know how that is supposed to happen, and a court clerk runs over and whips out a fish bowl from behind the counter, filled with little reward cards.  She smiles and tells him “swish your hand good” and again the term has to be considered.  Swish – maybe she meant swirl? Swish usually means the rustling sound of a dress or fabric as a person moves, and also means to wiggle the hips.  I want to avoid anything that might confuse the defendant into wiggling his hips, and the so I render it as “move your hand around to search”.

Yes, it is disappointing to not render the exact style and terms and words but if I interpret as a pedantic purist and talk about wiggling, the pads on animal paws, sons of bitches, Russian mountains, and the pubic hair that grows around the anus, the talk becomes nonsensical and I have done no one a favor.

I recall a Dr. Seuss book about a faithful elephant, that ended with the elephant saying, “I meant what I said and I said what I meant.” I think it would be a great mission statement for judges and attorneys.  Being respectful and kind does not have to descend into false heartiness and slang, for the love of Pete.

By the way, “for the love of Pete” may also be rendered “for Pete’s sake” and it is a softening of “for God’s sake” because we refer to St. Peter at the gates of some versions of Christian heaven, rather than referring to the Almighty God himself.  And this my friends is exactly the kind of unpackaging of culture-bound terms that interpreters do not have the time to adequately process and render into the target language!  So dear judges and learned counsel, I know you mean well, but avoid them if you can!