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Forensic linguistics

Rodolfo Mendoza-Denton, professor of psychology | December 16, 2010

Does language affect the way we think? Before you dismiss this as an interesting but esoteric question, consider that language is the medium through which courtroom testimony is delivered, evidence is discussed, and criminal cases are decided upon. Small linguistic differences in the way evidence is presented can have a large impact on the ways that people construe otherwise identical evidence. This was shown clearly by psychologist Elizabeth Loftus, who found that witnesses to a car crash estimated that the same car was going faster when they were asked “how fast was the car going when it smashed into the sign?” than when asked “how fast was the car going when it hit the sign?”

Loftus’ seminal research is important because, in an age where defendants can cover up their tattoos to manage impressions, we need to be aware that the linguistic choices interrogators make can subtly influence impression formation– and verdicts– just as effectively.

However, the subtle influence of language on impressions doesn’t have to happen consciously, at the hands of shrewd prosecutors subtly swaying jurors through leading questions. The influence can happen unconsciously as well, and the source of the bias can be one few of us would suspect: courtroom translations. Particuarly ones that translate from Spanish into English.

You see, Spanish and English have normatively different ways of describing how things and people move. In Spanish, for example, people would normally say,

— El hombre bajo las escaleras.

which would translate more or less literally to “The man descended the stairs.” While it is possible to speak this way in English, it’s not very common. Rather, people would be more likely to say, “He went down the stairs,” “he walked down the stairs,” or “he ran down the stairs.” Depending on what they saw, they might even say “he bounded down the stairs.” The point here is that in Spanish, the “default” verb that people use tells you about path (in this case, to descend or go down), but in English the verb is more likely to tell you about the manner in which the person did the action (running, walking, or bounding). it would be similarlly odd in Spanish to constantly specify how a particular action was done. One could say, “El hombre bajo las escaleras corriendo” (the man descended the stairs running), but it’s not the way people speak in everyday conversation. Cal’s own Dan Slobin has shown this difference between path and manner verb emphasis empirically in several publications.

The emphasis on “path” in Spanish (e.g. to descend, to enter, to exit) versus “manner” in English (e.g, to skip down, to walk into, to run out of) puts translators in exactly the kind of subtle predicament where hidden bias can come into play. Consider the following two examples from a recent article by Luna Filipovic (2009):

Witness: X salio por la seven

Literal translation: “X exited onto 7th”

Transcript translation “X ran up 7th” (my emphasis)

Witness: … y entro detras de mi

Literal translation: “… He entered behind me”

Transcript translation: “…and he slipped in behind me”

These examples are disturbing. Just as the use of “hit” versus “smash” influences witnesses’ accounts of how fast a car is going, the choice of which manner verb will stand in for the path verb “to enter” — slip in? walk in? come in? — is going to affect the way juries weigh and consider evidence, and ultimately, the guilt of the defendant. It is important to recognize that translators and interpreters can generally be assumed to have no stake in the outcome of the case– in other words, their translations are not intentionally skewed. What is likely, though, is that translators have their hands full, juggling between two languages in real-time as they also need to type into a keyboard. And, as I have argued previously, when we are in a rush, when we are multi-tasking, when we are cognitively busy– these are the instances in which we are the most vulnerable to rely on stereotypes.

If a particular defendant were named either “Robert Garner” or “Roberto Garcia,” (these names have been used by my colleague Galen Bodenhausen to connote group membership), would there be systematic differences in the way Spanish language witness reports of him entering a building are translated? Such an experiment would be of great value to show that subtle prejudices can affect our language choices, which then affect the way we think – and the way we calculate reasonable doubt or certainty about someone’s guilt. Hardly an esoteric topic.

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