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  • Yelena McCafferty

Slips of the Tongue

Updated: Nov 18, 2020

Something caught my attention in a national newspaper some time ago, and while the article itself had nothing to do with languages, the circumstances it referred to most probably did. The story was about a court appearance of a foreign offender who was asked his nationality. Under the Policing and Crime Act 2017 courts are required to ascertain defendants’ nationality when they attend at the start of a case. The article goes: “In an unusual move, Gindra did not give his nationality in court, replying only ‘gipsy’. But he used a Russian interpreter, suggesting he is from one of the Baltic states.”

As it happens, the Russian translation of the word “nationality” may have had something to do with it. In Russian the direct calque of “nationality” is “национальность”, but it means something different. It denotes a person’s ethnic origin, for example, a Russian national may have an Armenian ethnic origin. In fact, notes on both the ethnic origin and citizenship (better known as nationality in British English) are still included in Russian birth and marriage certificates as well as a few other official Russian documents.

In the court case described, the defendant may well have given his ethnic origin as gypsy, confusing everyone, when the court clerk’s question was actually about his nationality. The Russian interpreter should have used the term “citizenship” (гражданство) when interpreting the question.

Considering that defendants potentially face up to a year in prison or a fine if they lie about their nationality or fail to disclose it, we as interpreters need to be wary of this yet another false friend of interpreters. At the end of the day, words with a similar form, either graphic or phonetic, but different meanings can pose problems even to experienced interpreters as no one is immune to slips of the tongue. Remember one Polish interpreter calling Theresa May "Madame Brexit" during a press conference?

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