Due care and attention: Tips for translating legalese
The table of contents of the Ashgate Handbook of Legal Translation, a collection of essays by legal scholars and linguists, illustrates the scope of the challenge facing legal translators: “Translation vs. Decoding Strategies in Law…”, “Linguistic Diversity and the Elusive Quest for Plain Meaning in the Law”, and “Trying to See the Wood Despite the Trees”. With “legalese” being synonymous with obscurity, the difficulties that a legal translator is up against are clear, although there are many resources and tips to help and guide.
The Cambridge English Dictionary defines “legalese” as “Language used by lawyers, and words and expressions typically used in legal documents, that most people find difficult to understand.” Legal translators may not be “most people”, but they do need to be aware of the special conventions that apply to legal English. One important tip for translators is to beware of false friends — words that look familiar but that are used with a technical meaning, such as ‘malice’; ‘consideration’; ‘prejudiced’; ‘redeem’; or even ‘hold’. The correct equivalent must be identified under the layers of additional meaning.
Fit and proper language
The obscurity of legal language is partly due to the need for formality: the phrasing of legal documents, their unusual word order and jargon, are intended to give them greater weight and strengthen their effect. Another important tip for legal translators is therefore to familiarise themselves with legal formalities and conventions in source and target languages. The European Commission’s e-Justice portal on legal translation advises that knowledge of the specialist terminology and linguistic conventions used in legal documents can be obtained by “having access to legal experts”. For translators not working as part of a legal team, the number one tip is to be familiar with the available linguistic resources: the “gold standard” is the hefty Black’s Law Dictionary, although there are plenty of free online resources, such as the glossary provided by the Law Society; and the Merriam-Webster Law Dictionary.
Hanged on a comma
Although writer Lynne Truss joked that “Lawyers eschew the comma as far as possible, regarding it as a troublemaker”, attention to punctuation is essential in order to clarify meaning (compare “I leave my fortune to my children who took care of me”, meaning those of my children that cared; and “I leave my fortune to my children, who took care of me”, meaning that all my children cared).
Where sense does remain ambiguous, the translator must take care not to impose an interpretation. Lawyers are renowned for exploiting potential ambiguity, a much-quoted example being the statement made by Bill Clinton, a lawyer by profession, in his grand jury testimony during the investigation into his alleged abuses: “It depends upon what the meaning of the word ‘is’ is.” Words are the essential tools of the law, thus the most important piece of advice to legal translators is always to strive for accuracy of equivalence.
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