Chinese evidence versus the institutionalized power of English


  • Weiping Wu Center for Applied Linguistics



Forensic linguistics, Chinese evidence, court, conversation analysis, cultural differences, interpretation and translation.


Based on actual court cases involving Chinese tapes surreptitiously recorded by the US government, I examined the complications in using Chinese as evidence in court where English has the institutionalized power. Findings from my analysis suggest that: (1) overlooking certain linguistic features in Chinese when translating can lead to questions about the credibility of evidence used in court; (2) social and cultural factors associated with Chinese are often neglected in the legal setting where 'the evidence' is language and 'language only'; and (3) special problems due to the use of Chinese as evidence in court are yet to be realized by judges, jurors and lawyers. I focus on three features that were neglected by English-speaking people dealing with legal cases involving Chinese: polysemy. tense, and the use of obscene language and kinship terms. The first two are linguistic, while the third one is basically a feature associated with cultural knowledge. I argue that, due to the close link between the culture and society in which a language is used, the understanding of Chinese inevitably involves a certain degree of knowledge about the Chinese culture and society. Because of the power of the framework within which we process incoming data and the lack of such a framework for key players in the US court system, it is easy for them to misinterpret the meaning of what was actually said in the conversation in Chinese. To remedy such a situation, I suggest that (1) certain procedures be followed in preparing the English transcription for court use, and (2) courts use an expert witness in cases involving Chinese whenever possible.

Author Biography

Weiping Wu, Center for Applied Linguistics

WEIPING WU has a Ph.D. in Linguistics from Georgetown University. He is currently a research associate at the Center for Applied Linguistics and a tester for the court interpreter certification program in New Jersey. He taught a graduate course on Language and Law as a visiting professor in China and is actively involved in linguistic research in the legal field, including language evidence used in court and legal interpretation and translation.



How to Cite

Wu, W. (2013). Chinese evidence versus the institutionalized power of English. International Journal of Speech, Language and the Law, 2(2), 154–167.