Wednesday, January 8, 2020

Signatures, translations and lies

Suppose I am hired to be an interpreter for a diplomatic meeting. When I translate claims that I know to be lies, am I lying or deceiving?

Of course, I’m not. I am being relied on for the accuracy of the translation, not the accuracy of the claims. The point is clear if I am being paid by the side that is lied to, but whether I am lying or deceiving surely does not depend on who pays me. By the same token, the typist who takes down and posts his boss’s lying letter is not lying or deceiving.

But that one is not lying or deceiving does not mean that one is off the hook. The interpreter and typist, while neither lying nor deceiving, are cooperating in another’s lies. Whether such cooperation is morally permissible will probably depend on further details. (A fairly clear case of permissibility: One knows that the other party will see through the lies.)

But what if instead the boss asks the typist to take down a lying letter purporting to be from the competing company’s boss, which the boss plans to post on social media in order to discredit the other company? Now I think the case is different. Suppose, for simplicity, that the typist’s boss is Natalie Nixon and the other company’s boss is Cathryn Cato. When the typist signs a letter “Natalie Nixon”, he is himself purporting to the reader that the letter comes from Nixon, and if the typist signs the letter “Cathryn Cato”, he is purporting to the reader that letter is from Cato, and that’s a deceit—maybe even a lie—from the typist.

Similary, if the interpreter says “We strongly believe in freedom of speech”, she is purporting that this is what her principal said the equivalent of. If her principal said that, the interpreter is off the hook for deceit even if the claim is a lie, but if the interpreter made that up, the interpreter is deceiving.

It looks to me like the interpreter’s speech acts are equivalent to prefacing every sentence with: “X says that…”, and the typist’s speech act is equivalent to prefacing the letter with: “X claims that…”.

If this is right, then in my earlier post, Bob is actually lying. But he’s not lying in the content of the letter of recommendation, but in his secretarial claim that the letter is Alice’s.

But I am far from confident about any of this.


Helen Watt said...

One difference between the translator and the secretary though is that the translator is connected in person to those getting the message - directly speaking to them and purporting to pass on a message she's translating as you say.

In contrast the secretary is more transparent - the person reads the letter thinking only about the author and not at all (or only as a side interest) about the one who typed it. So arguably the boss is the only one purporting or asserting - the secretary has a more mechanical role.

Similarly with an anonymous letter full of lies where the boss is surely doing all the lying and purporting (ie the letter purports to come from a real person and lyingly asserts things albeit not in anyone's name).

Alexander R Pruss said...


But think about how simultaneous interpretation is done at big meetings (e.g., the UN). The participants wear earphones and while they're looking at the speaker, they hear the interpreter. They may never even see the interpreter. I don't think it should make a significant difference whether the interpreter is seen, but it highlights the point about the interpreter being kind of transparent if they are doing their job well. Note, too, that the interpreter, like the secretary, uses the first person pronoun to refer to their principal

I hadn't thought of anonymous letters. One interesting thing about them is that to the extend that they are anonymous, they cannot be faked! (They can be faked to the extent that they are not anonymous. For commercial gain or to support an academic theory, one might forge a letter purporting to be from an *otherwise* anonymous 5th century BC Persian author.)

Helen Watt said...

Alex: All that is true about simultaneous interpreters but there's still this difference from typists: you hear the voice and are at least intermittently aware that there is a skilled process going on - the picking of words, etc. There's a real sense in which the interpreter is speaking directly to you.

Re anonymous letters - you're right that they have to purport to come from SOME kind of real person however vaguely described in order to be fakes. And faking is different from lying, but I think a fake including an anonymous fake can contain lies as well, if the contents are intended to be believed (that is, not just as coming from a real person, but as corresponding to the facts). Take a letter from 'a concerned citizen' destroying the reputation of a living person, or a letter from a purportedly historical if unknown person destroying the reputation of a dead one.