• September 5, 2011, 12:00 PM ET

Does Justice Lose Something in Translation?


By David Bellos

Dominique Strauss-Kahn

When the DA’s office finds it has a telephone conversation to consider as a piece of evidence, it has to find out what it says—even or perhaps especially when the conversation is in a language other than English. That can be a problem, because if you don’t know the language at all, you can’t tell which one it is just by listening to the tape.

The first thing to do is to contact an agency (an LSP or Language Service Provider) that can call on a range of people to listen to an extract so as to identify the language. However, the answer, whatever it is, may not help a lot.

The call from Dominique Strauss-Kahn’s accuser to her friend in Arizona was in a language that is called Peul in French and either Ful or Fulbe or Boulbe or Pullo or Gapelta or Pelta Hay or Domona or Pladina or Palata or Dzemay or Zaakosa or Pule or Taareyo or Sanyo or Biira by its speakers and those of some other languages—but in English, and English alone, its name is Fulani. (I’ve spared you quite a few of its names and as for dialects, forget it—there are dozens more.)

Let’s suppose that after getting a first answer and looking things up on Wikipedia the DA’s office worked out that it needed a professional Fulani-English translator with good transcription skills. The New York courts have an elaborate bureaucracy to provide translation services for defendants and witnesses, with proper exams for aspiring court interpreters and a solid book of rules about professional ethics. But even that system—one of the largest in the world— can’t cover more than a small fraction of all the languages that might conceivably be spoken by someone in the cosmopolitan whirlpool of NYC: it services about 100 out of the roughly 7,000 languages spoken in the world today—not including Fulani.