Legalese, or legal-speak, is a language commonly understood by members of the fraternity; but what happens when cross-cultural elements get in the mix and make things challenging for legal professionals? The situation must be dealt with, and with the greatest amount of care possible. The reason: even minor errors in legal documentation can lead to disastrous results for those concerned.
Our first consideration here is the instances where the need for legal documentation in multiple languages arises. This is by no means a comprehensive list, but it adequately shows the level of complexity involved.
The main challenges arise from four quarters: the system, the terminology, the syntax and the overall tone. Let’s look at each in some detail.
Legal systems are obviously different across the world. Since there is no cohesive “best practices” document covering the majority of systems, this can lead to ambiguity in translation – which must be avoided at all cost. Unlike the accounting world, where GAAP (Generally Accepted Accounting Practices) more or less provides an anchor for the majority of financial transactions and records around the civilised world, legal-dom has as many variations as similarities between the laws and norms of different nations.
So, what can a translator do when they are faced with two different legal systems and terms that have no exact equivalent? How do you eliminate the ambiguity and make sure there’s no room for disputes later on? Rob Lunn discusses the differences between the Spanish term “estado de derecho” and its usual English translation “rule of law”.
Terminology and usage poses another problem in legal translation. Unless the translator is well-aware of and experienced in the nuances of each language’s legal-speak, mayhem is likely to ensue – with ‘sue’ being the operative word here.
A classic case in point is the translation of the Warsaw Convention (1929) from the original French into English, commissioned by the English Parliament and to be incorporated into English law, in part, as the Carriage by Air Act 1932.
The bone of contention is that the French word blessure was translated (allegedly, erroneously) as wounding rather than injury. The fact that ‘wounding’ – and this is where nuance of terminology comes in – is typically associated with physical harm resulting from violence, usually with a weapon, means that the original French version would need to be consulted every time there was a dispute in the type of injury sustained during air travel.
In addition, the translator puts death and bodily injury in different parts of the sentence; in effect, splitting them and making them subject to ambiguity when establishing liability.
Commas, colons, apostrophes, accents and other elements that help craft the syntax of a single sentence can play havoc when it comes to translation.
Moving the syntax around or even minor changes in punctuation can change the entire meaning of a sentence even within the same language, as humorously depicted in the book “Eats, Shoots and Leaves.” The problem, however, is amplified when you have to follow the rules of syntax in two different languages.
Effective translation can only occur when fidelity and integrity are maintained in the process.
The tone of a legal document must be maintained at all times, even in translation. Often, inexperienced translators will know how to render the meaning accurately, but do not have the expertise to keep the tone or register of the original text. This can lead to several complications: for example, the severity of tone of a legal notice may not come through properly; or the formal tone of a deposition may be altered in the translated text.
Legal English carries a very formal, impersonal tone, and usually contains complex sentences referring to several subjects. It also primarily uses the passive voice. When translating into a language that primarily uses active voice, getting the tone right is a huge challenge. The real problem, however, is that such variations in tone could bring about variations in the actual meaning of the text in question.
To prevent undesirable results, the translator has to have relevant experience (ideally having practiced under both systems), so things don’t go wrong. Even a task as seemingly simple as translating a birth certificate must be done with the utmost care. For example, identifying the first name versus the middle initial versus the family, house or tribe name is a critical element in birth certificate translation. An error could lead to so many problems down the road for that person.
Liked what you read? Check out the other articles in this series: