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Defence calls Persian linguistic expert to testify at attempted murder trial
When translated into English, the Persian language can seem very dramatic, a linguistics expert told the court Thursday. It's not uncommon, for example, for people to say "I may die for you" 20 times a day or more, as a simple expression of gratitude.
That's why when she read a text message conversation between a Memorial University student and his brother in Farsi that had occurred in the weeks before the student is alleged to have attempted to murder a colleague, she didn't find his statements particularly indicative of any attempt to kill.
Even when the student told his brother in Farsi, "I am thinking of killing (the colleague) and then myself," and, "If I had a gun, I would shoot everybody," it likely didn't mean he was going to do it, the expert testified.
"A lot of things, when translated, seem very dramatic but it's just how we use them every day," she explained, via video from Ottawa, where she is working on another PhD.
The linguistics expert was a student at MUN when she first met the accused in 2016.
She and the accused are both Iranian, and she told the court there are some subtleties in the text message exchange that become evident when you consider a cultural and comprehensive context.
The accused — whose identity is protected by a publication ban, along with that of the complainant in the case — has pleaded not guilty to attempting to kill his friend in a murder-suicide by trying to push him over a cliff on Signal Hill in April 2017.
The complainant testified he and the accused had gone to Signal Hill three days in a row that month looking for ski trails, but didn't find any. During a hike to an area known as Ladies' Lookout, the accused came quickly toward him, grabbed him and pushed him, he said.
The complainant said the two of them had ended up perhaps 15 feet down the slope. He used his right hand to grab the trunk of a bush, he said, while the accused was below him, holding onto his wrist. He said he couldn't remember falling.
"Right now I think he was trying to kill himself and he wanted me, a close friend, to be with him when he was doing suicide," the man testified, with the help of a translator.
Prosecutor Jude Hall introduced the text message exchange earlier in the trial, when he called a different linguistics expert, a professor from McGill University specializing in Farsi-English translation, to testify.
She told the court the accused's messages to his brother spoke of "thinking of killing" the complainant and himself, and indicated he was depressed.
His brother attempted to console him and told him at one point, "My brother, this is sin, later you will regret it for doing these things. What sin have your parents and his parents done that they must be in mourning for their children?"
On cross-examination, the Crown's linguist acknowledged some of the texts could be interpreted differently. Others, she was adamant, could not.
The linguistics expert in Ottawa called by defence lawyer Mark Gruchy Thursday as his first witness in the trial, insisted that while most of the Crown's expert's translations had been literally correct, they had not taken into account the context and culture.
When the accused had said, "I want to stab myself (and the complainant)," he had used a verb tense that suggested he was having thoughts or dreams about it, but had no intention to do it, she testified.
"He is talking about thoughts that are coming into his head," she said. "The verb 'want' is not the same in Persian. He is saying, 'I have thoughts that are coming to me,' but it doesn't show any determination."
The expert said she took the entire conversation as friendly talk with a loved one, saying there's a special word for that type of exchange in Persian.
"It's when you are talking about the pain in your heart," she said. "It didn't look like someone was going to murder someone.”
On cross-examination, Hall questioned the linguist about the accused's choice of words and verb tenses, pointing out his brother had appeared to take the texts seriously.
"Contextually, would you agree (the accused's brother) is suggesting that parents are mourning somebody who is dead?" Hall asked.
"Yes,” she replied, explaining the word "mourning" has the same use in Farsi and in English.
The accused is expected to take the stand once his trial resumes Friday. Hall and Gruchy are scheduled to make their closing submissions to Justice Vikas Khladkhar in March.
- Attempted murder trial moves out of St. John's courtroom and up to Signal Hill
- 'Don't play with my life," Memorial University student reportedly told man he is trying to murder on Signal Hill in St. John's
- 'He is not a murderer,' man told police of MUN student charged with trying to push him off Signal Hill