The Close Enough Approach and Admitting Defeat in Legal Translation

legal translation Jun 03, 2021

Functional equivalence is one of the three translational Es we’ve been exploring on this blog. In theory, it means using a referent in the target language system that is similar enough to the source language system so as to convey the intended message but with significant connotational or denotational differences. In plain English, that means using a word that’s ‘close enough’ to what the source word means to facilitate communication, but not so close that the target and source terms mirror each other exactly.

A classic example is hipoteca and mortgage. In many Spanish-speaking jurisdictions, hipoteca denotes a right in rem of guarantee. And while a mortgage denotes the involvement of a bank, an hipoteca will often involve an escribano or notario (i.e. civil-law notary) instead (or in addition to). 

While some authors believe that functional equivalence is “the ideal method of translation” (Weston 1991) others sustain that “it is misleading and should be avoided in the translation of laws” (Sarcevic 1997). A more moderate view, and one that I personally subscribe to, is that context is what ultimately determines whether functional equivalence is appropriate or not. According to Harvey, “the technique is appropriate for the translation of texts intended for the lay reader (novels, general newspaper articles, political speeches, etc.) in contexts where scrupulous accuracy is less important than fluency and clarity. However, in a document intended for lawyers, the technique can be misleading” (Harvey 2002).

Naturally, this raises the question about when functional equivalence is appropriate. I like to break it down like this:


When trying to decide whether to use functional equivalence or not, we need to take two key considerations into account: whether the reader is a legal professional and what purpose the text will serve. The more specialized our readership, the lower the likelihood that functional equivalence will be appropriate. A rule of thumb is this: Functional equivalence is OK in contexts where close enough is appropriate. If context demands extreme technical precision at both the denotational and connotational levels, then functional equivalence is not the way to go.

So what are we left with then? Sometimes, when neither formal equivalence nor functional equivalence will do, we have no choice but to admit defeat. Enter non-equivalence.

Non-equivalence basically means transcribing or borrowing the problem term from the source language. When no knowledge of the source language is presumed by the reader, the transcription is and should be accompanied by a gloss or translator’s note and, of course, that gloss or note may point out a significant conceptual or procedural difference between the legal systems at hand.  For example:

El abogado en su rol como auxiliar dentro del litigio (escritos de todo tipo) y en su rol como redactor de textos jurídicos de toda clase (estipulativos, como contratos; normativos, como estatutos de sociedades; informativos y argumentativos, como las llamadas “opiniones legales” [neologismo creado por calco del inglés legal opinion]).

There are two major drawbacks to this technique:

  • The need for a gloss or footnote can render the target text somewhat long-winded.
  • That need also makes the translator’s presence intrusive, which runs counter to the convention of impersonality in legal discourse.

This is why some authors recommend a descriptive or self-explanatory translation that is concise enough to function as a precise term without the need to transcribe words from the source text.

What’s best in each case? If you take anything away from this post series, let it be this: there is no standard one-size-fits all answer. No single theory can perfectly capture the legal translation phenomenon. And in that sense, legal translation is not unlike therapy: just like a good therapist adapts their approach to the specific needs of the patient, a good legal translator adapts their approach to the needs of the drafter AND the reader alike. 

Is that harder? Sure. But anything short of that takes the human value out of translation.

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Works Cited and Further Reading

Alcaraz Varó, E.., and B. Hughes. 2002. El español jurídico. Barcelona: Ariel.

Baker, Mona. 1992. In Other Words: A Coursebook on Translation. London: Routledge.

Edelmann, Gerhard. n.d. "El empleo del futuro subjuntivo en la traducción de normas legales alemanas al español." Centro Virtual Cervantes. Accessed June 10, 2019.

Felices Lago, Antonio Miguel. 2005. "La teoría y la práctica en el desarrollo de la lengua para fines específicos en E/LE: revisión crítica de los logros de la última década." Quaderns de filología 81-98.

Fludernik, Monika. 2000. "Genres, Text Types, or Discourse Modes? Narrative Modalities and Generic Categorization." Style 274-292.

Gargarella, Roberto. n.d. Yale Law School - Lo "viejo" del "nuevo" constitucionalismo latinoamericano. Accessed February 18, 2019.

Gutiérrez Álvarez, J. M. 2012. "El español jurídico: propuesta didáctica orientada." Revista de didáctica ELE 11.

Hart, H.L.A. 1961. The Concept of Law. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Harvey, Malcolm. 2002. "A Beginner's Course in Legal Translation: the Case of Culture-Bound Terms." Translators' Journal 177-185.

Kelsen, Hans. 1991. The General Theory of Norms. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Kerremans, Koen, Vanessa Andries, and Rita Temmerman. 2016. "Studying the Dynamics of Understanding and Legal Neologisms within a Linguistically Diverse Judicial Space: The Case of Motherhood in Belgium." Procedia - Journal of Social and Behavioral Science 46-52.

Lessig, Lawrence. 1993. "Fidelity in Translation." Texas Law Review 71.

Mellinkoff, David. 1963. The Language of the Law. Boston: Little, Brown & Co.

Poper, Karl. 1991. "The Logic of Scientific Discovery." In The Philosophy of Science, by Richard Boyd, Philip Gasper and J.D. Trout, 99-120. Cambridge: The MIT Press.

Putnam, Hilary. 1991. "The "Corroboration" of Theories." In The Philosophy of Science, by Richard Boyd, Philips Gasper and J.D. Trout, 121-138. Cambridge: The MIT Press.

Reiss, Katharina, and Hans Josef Vermeer. 1984. Groundwork for a General Theory of Translation. Tubingen: Niemeyer.

Robins, R. H. 1979. A short history of linguistics. London: Longman.

Sarcevic, Susan. 1997. New Approach to Legal Translation. The Hague/London/Boston: Kluwer Law International.

Snell-Hornby, Mary. 1988. Translation Studies: An Integrated Approach. Philadelphia: John Benjamins.

Weston, Martin. 1991. An English Reader's Guide to the French Legal System. New York and Oxford: Bloomsbury Academic.



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