By Mark Herman

An old joke goes, “How can you tell when [insert your favorite despised group here] are lying?” Answer: “Their lips are moving.”

However, most people cannot tell. According to the article “Lies and Linguistics– Machine Learning Gets Closer to the Truth,” published in the Spring 2015 issue of Columbia Engineering magazine, the ability of most people to detect lies is worse than that achievable by blind guessing. Verbal and psychological cues, such as raising or lowering speech pitch and amplitude and looking directly (or not) at a conversational partner, simply do not communicate much to the average listener, regardless or what he or she may believe. Polygraph machines, which measure such things as heart rate and sweating, are also not very reliable. But verbal cues, it turns out, can be reliable, or at least more reliable, provided the resulting speech waveforms are analyzed not by a human but by a digital computer. Because different pitches and amplitudes signify different things in different languages, different programming is required to determine lies in different languages.

American English is the language first tackled by Julia Hirschberg, a professor of computer science at Columbia University, and her colleagues. Some interesting findings are that differences in deceptive behavior exist within a single culture, and that the ability to detect deception correlates highly with the ability to deceive. This means that criminals are better detectors of lies than honest folk. However, people who are more open to experience and more agreeable are also better able to detect lying. So, the most easily duped are closed-minded disagreeable people who believe they are sticklers for the truth. There may be a political lesson here.

Hirschberg and her associates have made a large collection of recorded deceptive/non-deceptive speech available for research. More research is obviously needed, since the best that computers can do now is to detect lies in American English with 70% accuracy.

Lying can be a problem for translators and interpreters. What, if anything, should they do if they discover what they believe to be a lie in a purportedly truthful document or statement? There is no simple answer to this.

It has been long debated whether humans are the only beings with true speech. However, there is no debate as to whether other beings can lie. Anyone who has owned cats for any significant amount of time knows that when a cat jumps at something, misses, and slams into a wall, it is very likely to pick itself up, raise its head and its tail, and walk away with an air obviously signaling, “I meant to do that!” A cat we owned didn’t like it when we left her for a while, so, to get even, she urinated in our bed. When we returned and discovered her mess, she very anxiously and ostentatiously used her litter box many more times than was actually necessary, as if to say, “See, it couldn’t have been me because I know how to use the litter box!”

Michael is a gorilla to whom The Gorilla Foundation has taught sign language. According to a 2012 article in the Foundations’ journal, Gorilla (Vol. 28, No. 1), when he was about five years old–which is just about the same age that human children are first able to lie–he ripped a hole in a lab coat. When asked who did it, he first answered, “Koko,” the name of another gorilla. When asked a second time, he answered, “Penny,” a human. And only after being asked a third time did he answer, “Mike.”

The website has many quotations about lying. Mark Twain is responsible for coining at least two: “If you tell the truth, you don’t have to remember anything,” and “There are three types of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.” Dorothy Parker wrote:

By the time you swear you’re his,
Shivering and sighing.
And he vows his passion is,
Infinite, undying.
Lady make note of this —
One of you is lying.

And, of course, there is Abraham Lincoln’s classic:

You can fool some of the people all of the time, and all of the people some of the time, but you cannot fool all of the people all of the time.

As those who write the “Nigerian” scam emails might say, “Some of the people some of the time is more than enough.”


Submit items for future columns via e-mail to Discussions of the translation of humor and examples thereof are preferred, but humorous anecdotes about translators, translations, and mistranslations are also welcome. Include copyright information and permission if relevant.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

The ATA Chronicle © 2023 All rights reserved.