Geneva Diaries #27

Language and The Presumption of Innocence – OED Online


Dear Roger,

Another visit to the video library and another struggle with movie titles, do help! 

I just saw an English movie, one which we had recently watched, called “Beyond a Reasonable Doubt”, titled in french as “Presume Coupable”! Now, please correct me, but does that not translate to presumed guilty/alleged culpable? If so, how does “beyond a reasonable doubt”  translate into presumed guilty? In fact, as I see it, it’s exactly the opposite of presumed guilty. Are we not innocent until proven guilty, with the burden resting on the prosecution to demonstrate “Beyond a Reasonable Doubt” of the guilt? 

I was once told (by my froggie abductor whom I missed seeing this weekend, a “wild mushroom” story that I might share when we meet) that in the French legal system, the burden is upon the individual to demonstrate his innocence (this shifting of burdens in my universe is absolutely shocking, unforgivable, incomprehensible)! Please tell me this is not so, please, please pretty please…

I am further perplexed, as I just read an interesting article (in the IHT) this morning shedding new light on the old debate on the role of language in the moulding of ones thoughts and ideas, and if the French ideas are based on the converse translations of what we in the common law world understand to be the truth, then we should all be forewarned that we are entering into an alternate universe where we must walk on our heads to be acknowledged.

I apologize for coming to you with all my problems and queries, but you ARE my French teacher after all!

Good night and see you next Saturday.

Dear Purnima,

I see you have been writing into the wee small hours of the morning again.  It reminds me of my graduate school days when I would often have to pull all-nighters to finish a paper or work on my thesis.  I always appreciated the calm and quiet of those post-midnight hours when there was nothing to distract you from what you were concentrating on.

Film title translations are very often a mystery (and we won’t even get into the many terrible subtitles I’ve seen over the years).  There often isn’t any relation between the original title and the French translation.  I remember the case of the translation for the American release of a French film back in the 80’s.  The original title was “Coup de foudre”, which translates at “Love at first sight”  The title in the US was not even in English, and don’t ask me why they chose a French title.  It was called “Entre nous”.   I also remember the translation in Danish of the great Billy Wilder film, “Some Like it Hot”.  In Danish the title was “Ingen er fuldkommen” = Nobody’s Perfect, which, although it’s the last lines in the film, has really nothing to do with the story line of the film.  So don’t worry you beautiful head over such seeming incongruities in film titles.  They will always be there, and it is often someone’s idea of how to best portray the content of the film in a title in a different language.  It is not always a direct translation.;

And, as for you much more serious question about innocent until proven guilty or guilty until proven innocent, I’m afraid your froggie admirer is right.  The French justice system theoretically is based on the principle of “the presumption of innocence”, but in actual practice that is rarely the case.  It really is up to the accused (or to his or her more or less (in)competent lawyers) to prove his or her innocence.  And can’t we also say that the same thing often occurs in the US legal system ?  When the honor and reputation of a district attorney’s office depends on bringing in a guilty verdict in high profile cases, the prime focus of the legal system is overwhelmingly on getting the jury to declare “Guilty, your Honor” at the end of the trial.  There is very often little concern for the truth.  The primary directive is to find the defendant guilty.  I am often disheartened at the legal system in the US that adamantly fights to prevent a retrial of a death-row prisoner based on new evidence, especially DNA evidence that could prove the innocence of someone that has been wrongly convicted.  The defendant’s lawyers have to mount extensive legal battles to force the local authorities to accept the new evidence.  And then, even when the person is determined to be innocent, it is often months before they are actually released.  There is a case in Texas right now of a man convicted of killing someone, and the local courts at first refused to allow DNA evidence to be introduced.  It is as though the system itself would be besmirched, since it would be proof that they had actually convicted the wrong person.  That is also one of the main reasons why I am adamantly opposed to the death penalty.  There are too many examples of totally innocent people being executed by the state.

Well, that was a heady way to start my Sunday morning !  I’m sorry your planned rendezvous in Paris was cancelled.  That must have been disappointing.  Did he eat some wild mushrooms that he shouldn’t have ?

I saw that article on how language can shape the way we think on the New York Times website, but I haven’t read it yet.  I have always felt this was probably the case.  Maybe that explains why the Japanese are so ahead of the game in many areas: their language is so complicated and intricate, and also why the French have produced a body of literature and philosophical essays that is so impressive.

We’ll bring champagne Saturday night.  I bought it Friday in Ferney Voltaire at my favorite wine shop and it is already in the fridge staying chilled.  What time should we arrive ?

Have a good Sunday, and see you on Saturday,



Dear Roger,

Believe it or Not, I did make it to Paris… and back in time to catch my flight to delhi tomorrow morning!

There is so much to say, share but I am struggling to put pen to paper, finger on keyboard for some very odd reason… have to wait to catch up upon my return early October. However, I am keen you check out the book that has been on my mind,”Whatever happened to Tangayika” by Harry Campbell, this book, apart from being a fabulously entertaining account of changing place names (many of which we have seen in our lifetimes), giving a colorful geographical, cultural and historic overview of the changing names of places, the words and their origins. This extremely well written geographic account by someone who describes himself as a lexicographer (btw, did you read about the plans to do away with the hard copy of the Oxford English dictionary and put it completely online so that it can be continuously and quickly updated in step with the rapidly changing vocab of the tweeters texters and cyber smurfs, but then, what happens to warm, familiar, tactile experiences of having someone in his 4th edition, yes I have the 1950’s version that always rests besides me, with whom you have many disagreements, face away but always return, sincere till the end, they want to do away with him…such blasphemy!) and armchair traveller, who is also apparently a linguist, truly opens up a new doorway, one we have discussed at length in the past, a multi disciplinary arena, where languages, geography, history, art and culture mesh and create an exciting, absorbing area of study. 

In fact, two years ago, just a few months after arriving in Geneva, I attended a legal conference at the Palais de Justice, a segment of which was presented by members of the legal faculty of the University of Geneva who interestingly enough were proposing such an idea, of setting up a department of multi disciplinary studies at the University . All I remember is that In my excitement, I went bouncing up to the virtual reality professor to shake his hand and share with him my enthusiasm for the proposed department. However, for some odd reason, the professor shot up ten feet in the air as I introduced myself, a truly comic scene (and I wasn’t even wearing my electric buzzer ring) and that was the end of my exploring any plans at the University of Geneva! 

Will email from India, much much to share, but I just can’t wait to leave, not sure if it’s wanderlust striking once again, homesickness or just a long long summer with the brats watching yet another session of “The Annoying Orange” (Roger, you absolutely have to check this out on youtube, at least I will have someone to share my memories/misery with, I found myself ENJOYING IT!!!) . See below The Annoying Orange:

I’m all packed and ready to go, taking along (what promises to be an exciting book) a wake up and “delete” call on the cyber-world on this long journey on the back of the bus to India! I look forward to the sushi meal (and finally checking out the kitchen) in October.

Hugs to the family and many kisses (after my french lessons in Paris I’m scared to use the French equivalent).


Disclaimer : P

All persons, places, events are fictitious; all imputed relationships purely aspirational. There were no men harmed during the penning of the Feminist Manifesto.

Purnima Viswanathan 

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