A tale of a comma

Some people misunderstand that there is such a thing as a “correct” translation – there is only one correct translation – and everything else is incorrect (“mistranslated”). Of course, translation is not black and white by any means. There are many different shades of nuances within everything we say or write.

About a year ago, I interpreted for a witness in a criminal case, and my interpretation was recorded. Someone else transcribed my interpretation afterwards. This transcription was then used as “evidence” for the witness’s case in the trial, which was another some months later. In the eyes of the court, the words that I had used to interpret for the witness became exactly “her words.” The defense side would then peruse these transcripts, looking for inconsistencies in the witness’s story or ways to trip her up during cross-examination.

Anyway, one of those sentences that I interpreted became a point of contention during the trial at a later date. The reason for this happening is simple: people understand and interpret words and sentences in different ways. It turns out that, in the court transcript, the court transcriber had added commas into the sentence I had interpreted, and the places where these commas had been placed changed the overall meaning of the sentence.

So the sentence that I interpreted – which I had endeavoured to replicate the exact meaning of what the witness had said in the original Japanese – became somewhat warped during the transcription process because of punctuation which a monolingual third-party had added at a later stage.

Really, it’s no exaggeration that punctuation can affect the meaning of a sentence.

Remember the “let’s eat Grandma” meme?

Let's Eat Grandma Poster by Danya Ata | TPT

The difference in meaning wasn’t as significant in my case – no one was eaten, thankfully – but it was still enough to change the overall nuance of the sentence, and thus bring the defense side to interpret the witness’s words in a different shade, and question her based on this mistaken understanding of what she had said. As you can understand, it was a bit of a mess.

There needs to be more training about using interpreters in court, more understanding of the interpreter’s role (and limitations of using an interpreter), more understanding of how fluid languages really are… But to the courts, these transcripts are all they have to make their judgements based on.

Of course they scrutinise every single word.

But the word might not be the same in Japanese. Maybe there isn’t even a word that matches it in English. Maybe there are multiple words, each with a slightly different nuance, and the interpreter had to make a split-second decision mid-sentence of which they would use.

Language. It’s all shades of grey.