Legal Translation Problems and Perspectives, Part 1

legal translation problems and perspectives

Legal translation problems and perspectives

Every legislative system is ensconced within its own socio-political context. This reflects the history, customs, and norms of a particular national or ethnic group. One system is hardly ever identical across nations, even when the origins of their respective legal systems may share common elements.

Inherent to the field of law, these population- and country-specific norms are highly localized. For a more practical example, consider the work of a doctor: doctors educated in India can, in theory, practice medicine in the United States. This is because fundamental concepts of medicine may differ little between countries. However, due to the sheer number of differences in how countries approach the law, those working in the legal industry face significant hurdles when faced with translation.

In Part 1 of this post, we’ll discuss the underlying reasons why for legal translation is difficult. We’ll introduce the reader to four possible scenarios which a legal translator might encounter. And we’ll discuss the origins of “meaning for meaning” translation rather than word for word translations.

There are myriad legal systems across the world

This dazzling array of legal systems makes research in the field of legal terminology extremely difficult. A particular concept that is well-known in one system may not have an equivalent in another. A single term may exist in two different systems but refer to two distinct concepts. Therefore, translating legal terms from one language to another is more like translating from one system to another. This requires a comparative study of legal systems, as well as in-depth knowledge of possible problems due to the existence or lack of equivalent terms. From time to time, a perfect equivalence may exist but more often than not, it doesn’t.

legal translation problems and perspectives

Abstract notions like tortproperty, and contract are all defined differently according to the systems which define them. This means there is not one single legal language. Rather, there are as many legal languages as there are legal systems.

This, in essence, is the main roadblock when translating legal documents. To what extent beyond translating must a legal translator also explain terminology? To what degree when translating is a comparative study of law necessary?

Translation has always been difficult: Saint Jerome and the question of word-for-word renderings

There has always been an intrinsic impossibility in translating.

What most competent translators strive to do is not interpret words, but meaning. Ideally, a reader in French, Dutch, or English should experience the same feelings when reading the text. This is a difficult task even for the most skilled translators.

In his letter dated 395 A.D. to his friend Pammachius, Saint Jerome defends this “sense for sense” method. He states, “I have rendered them not as a translator but as an orator, keeping the sense but altering the form by adapting both the metaphors and the words to suit our own idiom. I have not deemed it necessary to render word for word but I have reproduced the general style and emphasis. I have not supposed myself bound to pay the words out one by one to the reader but only to give him an equivalent in value.”

This, in essence, is what the legal translator is trained to do. Given the numerous legal systems and definitions therein, it would be impossible to render a meaningful 1:1 (word for word) translation 100% of the time. To attempt to do so would result in costly, if not catastrophic, results.

Four possible situations that a legal translator may encounter

Legal translators must find equivalence. Where none exists, they explain the nuances of each system to foster the reader’s understanding.

For this reason, legal translation requires extra diligence.

In general, there are four possible scenarios facing the legal translator:

  1. Different legal systems that are regulated in the same way
  2. Systems using equivalent names or terms with underlying norms
  3. Systems employing both different terminology and underlying norms
  4. Situations where an institution exists in one system but is altogether nonexistent in another


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