Legal Translation Problems and Perspectives, Part 2

Legal Translation Problems and Perspectives, Part 2

legal translation problems and perspectives

Welcome back!

Last week we introduced the general legal translation problems and perspectives. We also started to describe the four possible scenarios all legal translators/lawyer linguists face at some point in their careers. To recap, they are:

  1. Different legal systems with the same regulations
  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

In this continuation post, we’ll delve even deeper into all possible scenarios. We’ll also discuss the unique pitfalls legal translators face in each. We’ve also discussed this topic before here.

Situation 1: Different legal systems with the same regulations

Any two systems with the same regulations are bound to have similar legal concepts. When this happens, target language terms represent the same concepts in the source language. In these cases, translators must substitute the term in the source language with the one in the target language even if it’s rare to find perfect linguistic and legal equivalence.

The European Union is a good example for us to use to illustrate this point.


Because the European Union publishes integrated acts in all its official languages.

By definition, terms used in the EU have one single interpretation. In other words, these terms must all represent one single legal concept. For this reason, all official EU translators work closely with their colleagues. They check their work meticulously for congruence against a master terminology list.

Similar to the European Union, the United Nations also works this way. The UN staffs translators who use a single language-specific termbook available to all.

We asked Veronique Bessens, a French to English translator and reviser about the unique challenges legal translators face. She says:

“The main challenge, for me, is working with older documents for which a standard lexicon was never created. As I am currently translating documents for the Khmer Rouge war crime trials, I need to contend not only with the Cambodian legal system, but also the legal systems to which my readers are accustomed.”

Situation 2: linguistic equivalents with different underlying norms

There may be two systems that use equivalent terms which refer to different underlying norms.

In these situations, translators must avoid incorrect use of literal translations.

Consider the English term personal property. If translated literally into Italian, it would be proprietà personale. However, in Italian the term proprietà personale represents a different concept than personal property does in English.

In these cases, the translator must make understood that the text is a translation. The translator must also specify the source legal system.

For example, it is correct to translate the English contract into the Spanish contracto only if it’s made clear to the reader that both terms carry the same weight.

legal translation problems and perspectives

Contracts are especially tricky to legal translators. International businesses often translate contracts into numerous languages. As a preventive measure, clients must decide which legal system to rely on in case of controversies. This allows the translator to assign a precise legal content to words which would otherwise take on different meanings according to the systems they come from.

Situation 3: Different legal terms and different legal norms

The third situation happens when two systems use both different terms and legal norms.

In these scenarios, a literal translation may not cause as catastrophic a result when compared to the above example. This is because a term may not possess any equivalent or similar concept in the source language.

For this reason, the reader can easily understand the term and won’t confuse it with a concept existing in the source legal system. This usually prevents dangerous errors. It can also ensure there is no ambiguity with familiar institutions and terms.

There is no issue—for example—when rendering the American District Court as Corte distrectual in Spanish or the Dutch Minister van Justitie to Minister of Justice, etc. This is because the target systems do not possess any entity or institution of the same name. Therefore, it’s almost impossible to confuse terms.

Situation 3: One institution or norm in one system may not exist in another

The final scenario occurs when an institution exists in one system but not another.

In these cases, a literal translation would appear completely senseless.

One perfect example would be the (mis)translation of the Italian notaio into the English notary. In Italy, a notaio’s duties are nothing like that of an American notary. A notaio is a public official and a qualified attorney who receives acts between living persons as well as wills and testaments. They can receive deposits, give legal advice, release copies, certificates, and abstracts. Notai must compete in a public examination held after two years of grueling, specific schooling and are then assigned a post in any Italian city based on government-expressed need. By law, only a certain number of notai are commissioned per year. Their duties are nothing like that of an American notary.

In the United States, a notary public is appointed by state government to serve the public as an impartial witness in performing a variety of official fraud-deterrent acts related to the signing of important documents. They, too, must pass an examination but they are not attorneys and cannot give legal advice.

Thus, any translator who renders the Italian notaio with the English notary commits a serious error.

Tying it all together

In this post, we’ve discussed the four possible scenarios that any legal translator or lawyer linguist may face. We’ve discussed why the field of legal translation is a precarious one needing the expertise of a specialist.

In our next post, we’ll discuss the phenomenon of “treaty English,” the role of English as a legal lingua franca, and the future use of English.

What sorts of issues do you face as a legal translator? Sound off in the comments below!


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