According to both Mellinkoff and every experienced legal translator and/or lawyer-linguist everywhere, legal discourse is formulated in a specific language or sublanguage that is known as “the language of the law” (Mellinkoff 1963). Like all other languages, the language of the law has its own syntactic, semantic, and pragmatic rules which form basic means of communication between legal actors. Because of that, the language of the law is considered by linguists to be a Language for a Specific Purpose (LSP); however, it is unique and different from other LSPs in that, unlike other technical language which is typically universal, the language of the law is the product of specific historical and cultural events that vary significantly from one jurisdiction to another.
All languages serve the obvious function of communication. And, needless to say, so do LSPs. But the language of the law serves two main additional functions: one regulatory and the other informative. This...
“Write in English,” advises Bryan Garner in The Elements of Legal Style, doing so, he claims, will have at least three advantages:
“First, you’ll succeed in communicating. No one benefits from a conclusion stated in this way: ‘Parens patriae cannot be ad fundandam jurisdictionem. The zoning question is res inter alios acta.’
Second, you’ll constrict that ‘marvelous capacity of a Latin phrase to serve as a substitute for reasoning.’ Third, you won’t embarrass yourself with a pretentious blunder, as by writing corpus delecti in place of the correct phrase corpus delicti: you’ll neither show yourself to be a lack-Latin nor unwittingly arouse necrophiliacs.”
I would argue that the same applies to legal translation. There is a somewhat lazy tendency to reflect Latin in translation, even when translating into Romance languages.
“But we have to reflect what the source text says,” argue many legal...
There is a very common misconception that, other than pronunciation and spelling of some specific words, there aren’t really that many differences between the English spoken in the United States and that spoken in the U.K. There is another equally common misconception that because both the U.S. and the U.K. are Common Law countries, the law is pretty much the same on either side of the pond. Nothing could be further from the truth. And these misconceptions can result in dire mistranslations.
American Common Law is of course rooted in English Common Law, but the post-revolutionary split between England the United States meant that American Common Law and English Common Law evolved as two distinct systems within the same legal tradition.
We could write a book (or two) on the differences between English and American law today. Not only that, we could write a book (or a gazillion) on variations in legal terminology between the U.K. and the U.S., but this is a blog post and blog...
A Translator’s Guide to Addressing American Judges and Justices in Formal Letters
“To avoid professional blunders in correspondence and other writings, the legal writer needs to know how to refer to judges and other dignitaries,” claims Bryan Garner. I couldn’t agree more. And, as a lawyer-linguist, I’d argue that the same goes for translators.
A common challenge facing translators who work into American English from the languages of European Civil Law countries is how to balance the excessively reverential formality of Civil Law with the (equally respectful) simplicity of American culture.
As translators, we often ask ourselves to what extent we should be faithful to source and reflect archaic expressions for addressing the courts. Well, my friend, ask yourself no more. Here’s a mini-guide to help you out.
United States Supreme Court
The Chief Justice
The Honorable (full name)
I. The Facts of the Case
Imagine you’re driving down the highway in a foreign country and you get stopped by the police. You don’t speak the local language and the officer who stopped you doesn’t speak your language either. The officer takes out his laptop, types something into Google Translate, which then spits out nonsense, and the next thing you know, you’re under arrest.
That’s what happened to Omar Cruz-Zamora on September 21, 2017 when he was stopped by Kansas Highway Patrol Trooper Ryan Wolting. Unable to communicate with Spanish-speaking Cruz-Zamora, and not knowing that his police department had human interpreters available, Wolting used Google Translate to ask for the defendant’s consent to search his car, where he allegedly found methamphetamines and cocaine.
According to the case report: “Wolting testified that there was no department policy against using Google Translate, but admitted a live translator would be more...
If there’s one thing all legal translators know it’s that lawyers don’t write as well as we think we do.
When the subject came up in my Advanced Skills Training Day workshop at the American Translators Associations’ 59th Annual Conference not too long ago, a lawyer-linguist in my class claimed that lawyers “write so well” because many (American) law schools offer advanced writing classes for lawyers.
Most of the legal translators in my workshop were far too polite to contradict her, but still heads nodded left and right and eyeballs rolled all over the room. Despite what we, as lawyers, think of our writing, legal translators and other language professionals beg to differ.
Lawyers are not just notoriously bad writers, we are also utterly clueless about what makes our writing so bad. And that cluelessness places an extra burden on legal translators, who are bound by fidelity to source, and often have to make tough linguistic...
Few questions are more recurrent among legal translators than what to do about doublets and triplets. Shielded by the anti-aesthetic mask of fidelity to source, many translators go out of their ways to reflect doublets, triplets and other poorly phrased strings word for word—only to later pat themselves on the back for their relentless (and all too often pointless) pursuit of formal equivalence.
As good translators know very well, context is king. So, there’s always a chance that, when translating, you may find yourself in one of those rare contexts in which strings serve an actual purpose. But the vast majority of the time, formal equivalence is not the way to go with doublets and triplets.
With rare exceptions, you’re better off dropping them. And, in this post, I intend to tell you why.
1. Where do doublets and triplets come from?
Doublets and triplets have their historical roots in the Norman conquest of the British Islands of 1066.
“To avoid nudity, the back-handed passive is almost obligatory: ‘It is suggested-,’ ‘It is proposed-,’ ‘It would seem-.’ Whether the writers really suppose that such constructions clothe them in anonymity so that people can not guess who is suggesting and who is proposing, I do not know. I do know that such forms frequently lead to the kind of sentence that looks as though it had been translated from the German by someone with a rather meager knowledge of English.” (Fred Rodell, Yale Law School)
As lawyer-linguists and translators, we’ve all had to suffer through circumlocution and stylistic weakness. We’ve all scratched our heads wondering what, if anything, the primary drafter intended to say, and more importantly, how, if at all, we can capture the intended message in the target language.
In an attempt to sound serious and dignified, most legal drafters resort to the same vices. And, what’s worse, in an attempt to...
There are two types of legal drafters and translators in the world: those who use the Oxford comma and those who’d rather risk millions through omission. Much ink has been spilled in pointless manifestos against the Oxford comma, as some professionals feel very strongly that the Oxford comma is for fools. “Context,” they argue, “is king.”
To them, it’s a thing of grammar Nazis and intellectuals which has no place in modern writing. In fact, many argue that there is no possible scenario in which the omission of an Oxford comma could generate any doubt.
When I recently challenged one such Oxford comma abolitionist, she challenged me back to find a single case in which the omission of an Oxford comma ever made any difference. It took me five minutes on LexisNexis to find 10.
But for the sake of brevity, I’ll just outlined my two favorites:
I. The Oakhurst Dairy Case
Oakhurst Dairy had to pay a $5 Million-dollar settlement after the United...