The challenges of Legal Translation – Part 1
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The challenges of Legal Translation – Part 1

The challenges of Legal Translation – Part 1
It is broadly acknowledged that legal translation is one of the most difficult specialist areas within the whole of the translation industry.  Today we will explore several of the key aspects of legal translation that set it apart from other fields, such as technical and literary translation, and we will discuss the unique challenges that these give rise to, as well as looking at how professional translators work to overcome these challenges.

 
1. Legal language

One thing about legal translation that sets it apart from other specialisms is the sort of language typically found in legal documents.  Lawrence Solan, in his excellent book The Language of Judges sums the issue up as follows:

Aware that language has generated so much litigation, lawyers have, over the centuries, developed peculiar syntactic devices, intended to make legal language more “precise” than ordinary language”i

What Solan is saying here is essentially that lawyers and law-makers often display a tendency to bend and manipulate language and grammar as they see fit in order to try and avoid the possibility of a text being interpreted in any way other than that which the author intends.

This is why in legal documents you often end up with linguistic features that you would not find anywhere else.  For example, I have seen sentences longer than the text of this article that run on for more than a page.  As another example, it is almost universal practice when writing lists in legal documents to separate the items in the list with semi-colons rather than commas.  The purpose of this is an attempt to indicate through punctuation that all of the items in the list should be given equal prominence – not something you normally think about when writing your shopping list!

As a translator, these sort of unusual constructions and conventions can pose significant challenges.  If you have a sentence that is 600 words long and you need to translate it into a language where sentence structure is necessarily different to the structure used in the source language (for example, when translating from English to German or vice versa), how does a translator keep track of all the different parts of the sentence sufficiently to structure the end result correctly?

 
2. Different legal systems

Another common challenge faced by legal translators is how to translate an idea unique to one legal system in such a way that it can be easily understood by people within another legal system.  There are concepts in some legal systems and jurisdictions that have no equivalent term or concept in other systems.  The extent of these differences varies greatly.  For example, within common law jurisdictions, such as the UK and the US, the idea of equity is a core concept, but in civil law jurisdictions, such as France and Spain, no such concept exists. 

So what should a translator do in these situations?  A common tactic is to leave such “untranslatable” terms in the source language and then to explain their meaning and context within a translator’s note.  This is all well and good, but what if a document is packed full of these concepts?  You might end up with a translation that has more translators’ notes than the actual body of the text, to say nothing of how time-consuming this would be for the translator.

 

So how do legal translators make sure they are prepared to overcome these sorts of obstacles?

Well, a key factor is experience.  Legal translators typically need at least a couple of years’ experience under their belt in dealing with these sorts of challenges to be able them to tackle them effectively.  Translators of legal documents also need to develop a very detailed understanding of not only their native legal system, but also of the legal systems from which all of the documents they work on originate.  This is why former lawyers often make some of the best legal translators.

Another effective weapon in a legal translator’s arsenal is research.  Regardless of how experienced a translator may be, the law is such a broad, if not all-encompassing field, that even after many years of experience there are likely to be terms or concepts with which they are not familiar.  Sufficient research is key in making sure that the source material is fully understood – a necessary precursor to being able to translate it correctly into another language.

 

What is clear is that legal translation can be one of the most challenging fields in which a translator can specialise.  As a result of this, when you are looking for a legal translator, nothing but the best will do in order to ensure accuracy and intelligibility.

iLawrence M. Solan The Language of Judges (The University of Chicago Press, 1993)
  • Last updated: 10 January 2017 10:03
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