My Woman, Mi Mujer, Minha Mulher

The song “My Woman, My Woman, My Wife” became a hit in 1970 when Marty Robbins wrote and recorded it. It quickly rose to the top of the country charts in the US at a time of great social and economic upheaval. The 1960s and its cultural revolution were coming to a close as Americans attempted to redefine the individual’s role in society.

At the time, probably no one thought of what the ramifications might be in the field of interpretation.

In English, the use of the idiom “my woman” is associated with a low register and may even sound coarse to more sophisticated ears. Not so in Spanish or Portuguese, where respectively mi mujer and minha mulher are widely regarded as endearing terms to refer to one’s lover or wife.

And there lies the dilemma for the interpreter. How do we really know that the person is referring to his wife when saying mi mujer or minha mulher?

In the recent past, I became keenly aware of this problem while interpreting a 4-day long deposition. It was a complex legal matter involving a man, a woman, a child and corporate assets. It turns out that the man was legally married to one woman, but also had at least two mistresses and children from each one of those ongoing relationships.

The case involved the man and one of the women who were not legally married to him.

He made repeated use of the term “my woman” in his native language. On the first day of the deposition, I initially interpreted this as “my wife.” The attorneys for one of the sides quickly raised objections. My immediate response was to say, “The interpreter stands corrected, this should have been interpreted as ‘my woman’,” and we went about our business.

The problem was that the deponent kept on using the same term time and again, while also alternating with “esposa,” (wife). Whenever I interpreted literally, either “my wife” or “my woman,” there would be an objection one way or the other.

The objections made sense because there could be a difference in the outcome if the woman referred to was legally married or simply in an extramarital, consensual relationship.

As I prepared for the second day of the deposition I decided that the interpreter needed to clear this confusion on the record. So, after being duly sworn in, I stated for the record that “The Interpreter wishes to stipulate whenever deponent uses the term mi mujer or minha mulher it shall be literally interpreted as “my woman’.” No one objected.

By the time we reached the fourth day of the deposition, everyone was exhausted. Long faces and nerves on edge attested to the fierceness of the legal jousting. But I can happily say that the whole controversy over the use of mi mujer or minha mulher became moot after my stipulation at the beginning of the second day.

In most cases, the interpreter should limit his or her role to facilitating oral translation from one language to the other, but in this instance, a little bit of assertiveness made the whole proceeding flow much faster.

by Javier Aparisi © 2018

Javier Aparisi-Winthuysen

Javier Aparisi-Winthuysen began his professional career as a Portuguese and Spanish freelance interpreter with the U.S. Department of State in 1984, but a year later embarked on a 25-year hiatus into journalism with Voice of America (VOA), Reuters and the BBC World Service. He has worked as a freelance conference and legal interpreter in south Florida since 2013. He was born in Caracas, Venezuela, of Spanish parents, lived in São Paulo, Brazil, through his early teens before moving to Washington, D.C.

Click here to read other articles by Javier.

  • Josephine Baldwin
    Posted at 15:07h, 23 February Reply

    Thank you very much for raising such an interesting and important point! In French and German, the expression “Ma femme” and “Meine Frau” are also used to refer to one’s wife, as I am sure this is also the case in other languages, so this is probably an issue that interpreters of those other languages have come across. Yes, interpreters need to be (nicely and politely) assertive sometimes; as you say, it makes the proceedings flow much faster and it also saves time. Since depositions are less formal than a court hearing, it is easier for interpreters to provide additional information regarding linguistic and cultural idiosyncrasies during a deposition than during a court hearing, in my opinion.

  • Vicki Santamaría
    Posted at 16:01h, 23 February Reply

    Javier, this is a great example of how one seemingly simple word can make all the difference in how it’s translated. In Costa Rica, the word “doña” is also used to refer to one’s wife/common law wife, as in “La doña told me that . . .” I suppose you could translate it as “the Mrs.”, but “doña” is a more respectful term than “the Mrs..” in English.

  • Susana A. Wickerham
    Posted at 16:15h, 23 February Reply

    Hello Javier,

    This is a great article. I have actually come across a similar situation and I applaud your assertiveness. Clearly you thought it through diligently, which is why you waited until day two. I don’t think I could have endured a four-day deposition by myself. I
    hope you had help.


  • Javier Aparisi-Winthuysen
    Posted at 20:22h, 25 February Reply

    Hi Josephine, it´s also a linguistic challenge in French and German, very interesting.

  • Patricia Rosell
    Posted at 01:54h, 26 February Reply

    Awesome! Thank you so much! This is definitely a nightmare for interpreters! What a great way to portray it!

  • Andrew Hanson
    Posted at 17:19h, 03 March Reply

    Thanks for sharing. This problem is quite old, as we can see from the Vulgate Bible where it occurs with the masculine gender. There in the Gospel of John, Chap.. 4, verses 16-18, we see possible confusion around the word “vir” which means both man and husband. When the Samaritan woman, whom Jesus has asked for water, says she has no husband, Jesus answers, “For thou hast had five husbands: and he whom thou now hast is not thy husband. This, thou hast said truly.” (quinque enim viros habuisti et nunc quem habes non est tuus vir hoc vere dixisti) It might be a better translation to say that she has had five “men” and that the one she has now is not her husband. The scene is amusing, especially in view of the woman’s response, verse 19, “The woman saith to him: Sir, I perceive that thou art a prophet.”

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