A married couple who lived together had disagreement on very minor family issues. The wife, a home stay mother who recently had a baby and was dealing with post partum condition, physically attacked her husband. She punched him on the face and left a bleeding lip.
She was then afraid that her husband might respond to her and do harm to her. So she called 911. When she realized that her husband left her and went into another room in the house she hung up the telephone before she spoke to the 911 operator. Apparently, she did not know that hanging up the phone would not stop her request for help.
A few minutes later, police officers knocked the door and according to cultural practice, the husband responded the door knock. The police saw from his face signs of injury and asked what happened to him and who did the injuries to him.
Due to the husband's limited English language he replied "She is crazy."
The police officers were not able to really understand the expression behind husband's "she is crazy" response. The police officer immediately called crisis intervention from the local hospital with the assumption that the wife is mentally ill. The police asked medical professionals to perform a mental health evaluation for her. She was taken to the hospital and later charged with one count of domestic assault and two counts of disorderly conduct. The evaluation led to questions on her parenting capability and how she is able to take of her four children, including her three-week-old baby, since she is mentally ill.
The husband admitted that he it would be better if he had used another word; that he would have appropriately expressed his disapproval of his wife's action. But he never meant that she is mentally ill and needs treatment.
Another scenario on the same topic, another day I was called to interpret on a jury trial for a defendant who is charged with domestic assault, and a terroristic threat. The alleged victim claims the defendant assaulted her and threatened that he would kill her, after their relationship became infertile. The process of jury began and first half of the day went well.
When the county was in a recess and all of us waiting to resume the hearing, the assistant county attorney who was prosecuting the case approached me privately and asked what is mean by the word "I will kill you" in Somali. Do the person mean really killing the other person or it has got another meaning?
In Somali, The word "waan ku dilayaa" is a common word that expresses disapproval, and depends on the context for its meaning. For instance, when children playing around get angry with one another they say, "waan ku dilayaa". It is even common to hear a parent say to their children ("waan ku dilayaa" if you do so and so or if you do it again). When teens and adults get angry with each other they use "waan ku dilayaa" which could translate as, "I will beat you up." But these words should not be taken literally. Parents don't mean they will really kill their children. The word is used simply to express disapproval of a child's actions and that the consequence will be punishment.
The county attorney dismissed the terroristic threat count and charged the defendant with one count of domestic assault.
In the law enforcement world --or to the U.S. public in general using the word "I will kill you" is not a joke and must be taken seriously. All means must be used to prevent what's seen as a threat from being carried out. But in many cultures, words are used interchangeably. When interpreted into English, ordinary, everyday language can have serious consequences, despite the fact that no real danger exists.
The two above scenarios are classic examples of the kinds of cultural misunderstanding that might happen between individuals with limited English and the law enforcement or justice system. It shows how a person can easily be charged with a crime, because words are wrongly translated, with or without an without interpreter.
I have no doubt that every language has words that has more than one meaning or the words in the language can be mistakenly misunderstood when literally translated into English. But authorities need to be cautious before someone is charged with a crime and brought into the Justice system.
In my experience as a court interpreter, I have seen many cases where a defendant is charged only because the law enforcement officer(s) did not understand what the defendant said in English, or officers had no interpreters with them to help communicate with the parties involved. One officer's case note read the, "suspect was mumbling when questioned and did not understand what he said!"
Even the use of interpreters sometimes doesn't help as some of the immigrants feel that they don't need an interpreter, when they actually do, especially when dealing with the courts and our justice system.
Abdi G. Elmi, MA. is a court- certified Somali Interpreter in the State of Minnesota. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.