Lost in translation: Say it straight – why it’s important to always be mindful of your language
When my Canadian-born friend Jessica Reid first asked someone, “Do you want a ride,” by kindly offering to give her a lift in her car, she definitely wasn’t offering the Irish slang interpretation of the word, which is grossly inappropriately mistranslated could.
When an American friend uses AAVE (African American Vernacular English) to say, “I’ll call you later, dog,” he’s saying he’ll call later. They will not beat up anyone, nor will they call the person a “dog.” The unfortunate consequences of such misunderstandings can be comical, but also serious.
For example, in a New Orleans case in 2015, Warren Demesme, then 22, was questioned for the second time over an alleged sexual assault of two teenagers. He had vehemently denied the allegations. Little did he know that if he used slang to invoke his rights – he told police, “Just get me a lawyer, dog” – he would end up serving a three-year jail sentence. His words were used against him in the Louisiana Supreme Court.
Prosecutors argued that Demesme’s constitutional request for an attorney was unclear, that his request was actually for a literal attorney dog! Court filings for that case say the suspect was a little frustrated and told detectives, “That’s how I feel, if you think I did it I know I didn’t, so why do it.” don’t you? Just give me a lawyer dog ’cause that’s not what’s going on.
The Orleans District Attorney’s Office relied on the use of “dog,” common in AAVE, to refer to a close friend to argue that Demesme waived his right to an attorney. The Louisiana High Court had ruled that requiring a canine attorney need not result in police stopping questioning anyone, resulting in the case being appealed to the Louisiana Supreme Court.
On the Supreme Court, Assistant Judge Scott J. Crichton took a similar approach by the prosecutors and lower court in his ruling. It was ruled that when the suspect told detectives to “just give me a lawyer’s dog”, Demesme was in fact asking for a “lawyer’s dog” and was not invoking his constitutional right to legal counsel.
It’s uncertain how many attorney dogs exist in Louisiana, or even around the world, and if in this case one would have been available to represent the human suspect, other than perhaps barking to get the suspect talking.
The courts are obliged to make decisions based on the evidence and legal arguments presented to them. Demesme’s case shows us that when suspects in police custody ask for a lawyer, they must be clear and precise, leaving no room for twisted or misunderstood words.
Away from the legal nuances, the story illustrates how difficult language differences can be in multicultural societies.
Ireland is today represented by people from all over the world speaking a variety of native languages, slang, slang, sign language, pidgin English and Creole. So the probability of catching the wrong end of the stick could increase.
Many of us have had or will have a conversation where the translation leaves us lost or embarrassed. Migrants will naturally try to connect with people from their country or continent of origin, forgetting the differences in the way even the main European languages are spoken.
The use of the word “hack” is a case in point. In Nigerian Pidgin English it can refer to food, “I’m going to chop” or “chop my money” also means to spend one’s money, which must not be mistranslated as an actual act of chopping food or money.
The many experiences of translation errors I have encountered or caused over the years have led me to ask other people about their experiences. I’ve even compiled a personal lexicon to avoid blushing in the future.
The way this language is taken up by others also applies when Irish people travel abroad. Swearing varies greatly from place to place.
But it’s very prominent in Irish culture. My early years in Ireland often resulted in shock and blushes when people swore casually in conversation. I come from a culture where my children still tell my mom if I miss something.
Outside of Ireland, even the most subtle or ‘dilute’ swear words can cause offense.
Fiona Bolger, a multilingual poet who lived in India for 15 years, said: “I once used a strong word about someone that I thought was watered down compared to how I felt, but my friends were appalled. They politely told me that they never use such language in their house! The word in question was ‘damn’!”
Irish-born disability and mental health advocate Blessing Dada also shared her caution about using Irish slang, particularly in the United States: “Whenever I say ‘Cop on,’ I get the weirdest looks.” She said also: “When I use ‘do it for fun,’ I have to remember not to look like I’m referring to drugs.”
dr Dina Belluigi, a native South African who now lives in Belfast, also shared how some mistranslations “cause funny looks while others cause great excitement”. She also noted that empathic terms like “shame”; “sorry” (which are understood and appreciated on the African continent) do not travel well at all. She also fears that she is too old not to express them due to socialization and that she has yet to learn good alternatives for expressing such feelings. Coming back to Ms. Reid mentioned above, she has learned from experience. “I’ve learned just enough not to say terribly inappropriate things here, but it still happens occasionally,” she said.
Mistranslations will always be part of us. They are becoming more common as interaction and integration between people from all walks of life increases. The consequences can range from great embarrassment to misunderstandings to imprisonment.
Words can mean different things to different people. So we need to take the time to understand what is being said to us and also to make sure that we have been understood.
https://www.independent.ie/opinion/comment/lost-in-translation-saying-it-straight-why-it-is-essential-to-always-mind-your-language-41608027.html Lost in translation: Say it straight – why it’s important to always be mindful of your language