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”?
What kind of lawyer?
How must do they charge?
How would I know?
Who assigned them?
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.