Mistranslations in Police Interviews Could Send Innocents to Jail
Imagine this. You are in a foreign country. The police stop you and realize that you don’t speak the language. So they organize someone to translate. If you’re lucky, the person they contact is a professional interpreter. If you’re unlucky, the person is a multilingual police officer who speaks your language well enough to be interviewed. Either way, now you need to talk to someone else.
Does this interview with an interpreter put you at a disadvantage? If yes how much ? The answer to this lies at the intersection of criminal psychology and cognitive linguistics, where researchers have realized that interpreters are an overlooked barrier between suspects and their freedom.
One of the most active researchers on these questions is Luna Filipovic, professor of language and cognition based at the University of East Anglia. She has been studying the effects of multilingual police interviews for over a decade.
She writes that having someone to translate can be taken for granted, and that’s enough to make a police interview fair, but that’s not true. He ignores how difficult translation is and the problems that arise from the logistics of translation in typically high-pressure and highly emotional legal contexts.
An interpreter may not speak both languages equally well, so important words or descriptions may be mistranslated. Some words have no equivalents and the turns of sentences translated literally can become absurd or misleading. Then there’s the problem that if everything is translated unemotionally, the words lose their context…but playing things up theatrically can also distort how statements are perceived.
Filipović found various types of errors that can creep in and influence reliability. In an example that Filipović lists in his 2007 research, the The Spanish word amigo is translated by an interpreter into familiar friend instead of the unknown guy. When the policeman then asks what that friend’s name was, the suspect replies that he doesn’t know, to which the policeman reacts suspiciously.
This kind of mistake can lead to a general feeling that a suspect has something to hide, when in reality all that’s going on is a language barrier that neither party realizes.
Then there is the problem of “inadvertent confessions”. An inadvertent confession occurs when someone appears to be making a confession to the police, not realizing that is what they are doing. It can also happen when the police think they have a confession or an admission of guilt for part of a crime, when they don’t. In other words, it is a statement that is incorrectly translated or understood as a confession.
In 2021, Filipović published research on British and American police interviews. She gives the example of a real case in the United States, in which a suspect is charged with murder despite speaking only Spanish. What follows is a transcript of the interaction, with the translation in parentheses added later by another person who speaks Spanish and English.
Police officer: OK, and what did you do with her?
Interpreter: Are there any? [And what happened?]
Suspicious: . . . se me cayó en las gradas.
Interpreter: . . . I dropped her on the steps.
Police officer: Where did you put it?
Interpreter: Donde the botaste? [Where did you throw her?]
Suspicious: Whose. . . [Here. . .]
That doesn’t sound like much, but as Filipović explains, the suspect was using a phrase in Spanish that clearly indicates he dropped the woman by accident. Because there isn’t a single word for it in English, the interpreter opted for the closest, dropped alternative.
However, in this context, it gives the impression that he did it on purpose. Presumably without noticing the exchange, the suspect then inadvertently confesses to the much more serious crime of killing a woman by throwing her down the stairs rather than accidentally dropping her. This nuance lost in translation could potentially cost him his life in prison.
Because of these issues, Filipović found that those who speak little or no English are more likely to inadvertently incriminate themselves in the United States or the United Kingdom than people whose first language is English.
If you ever find yourself accused of a crime in a foreign country, try to get a professional interpreter rather than multilingual relatives, friends or police. Check regularly that you understand what the police officer is asking.
And, you can request that a transcript of the interview be made available afterwards, which can also help police, lawyers and judges see any translation errors that may have crept in.
Be that slightly boring person who asks too many questions because the alternative is probably much worse.
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