Words are strange and illuminating, and sometimes just frustrating reminders of societal development, or lack thereof.   But as professional wordsmiths, working in a high stress field, we try to find the happiness in whatever words our intellectual curiosity and our professional duty leads us to research. The other day, we were talking about jacking off.

In English, this refers to a manual stimulation of anyone’s genitalia, but the specifics offered here in a sexual exploitation case revolved around a verbal offer of a “hand job” and whether the potential client understood the term.  In direct questioning, of course, the term would remain in English, as it was said in English during the sting operation.  But for the rest of the trial, we needed to render it in the defendant’s native language. These slang terms tend to be very regional, and the two team interpreters had very different ideas on how to render the term.

One prim and proper interpreter said let’s just say “masturbate” but that is of course a very different register, and something one offers as a gift to oneself.   The second interpreter was used to more colorful and vulgar slang, and her term was to “make the hay fly” which sounds sweet, like a lovely scene in a barn, except that in that speech community straw or hay also means jism or cum.  So that term could be startling to a defendant not from that area.   To settle the matter, one of the interpreters asked the defendant (with the attorney’s permission outside of the courtroom) what term he himself used, and he said “the jacket”.

I personally like the unisex terms that come from hand that exist in several languages.  In Spanish, we have Manuela.  In Swedish, pushing the handcart.  In English, Rosie Fingers, or just Rosie.   Jackson Browne memorialized this in a song lamenting his loneliness, in which he sings, “Rosie you’re all right – you wear my ring – when you hold me tight – Rosie, that’s my thing.  When I turn out the light – I’ve got to hand it to me – looks like it’s me and you again, tonight, Rosie.”

But alas for the court situation.  We are not there to be poetic or bring in wordplay.  We have to focus on actual communication.  So Rosie and Manuela and all their siblings were not invited, the hay did not fly in the barn, nor did we offer the gift of self-love.  We rendered the handjob, simply, as “the jacket”.   The argument then moved on to whether the defendant could understand the hand gesture for hand job, and we had to sit on our hands because we are not allowed to repeat gestures.