Connotation and Denotation in Legal Translation: Handle with Care

legal translation Mar 09, 2021

The language of the law is inherently open-textured. Its open texture creates an environment where hybrid terms flourish. Hybrid terms can be vague. Legal translators apply different techniques to bridle this vagueness.  In my last post, I showed you one technique that consists of comparing and contrasting the source word’s extension and contextual intention with that of each of its candidate translations to narrow down which term best fits the context at both levels. 

Today I want to show you another technique for analyzing denotation and connotation. Denotational and connotational comparison is essential when candidate terms may have a whole different world of meaning associated with them.

Think of the Spanish term estado de emergencia. You might recall this as one of my recent terms of the week on Instagram. There I explained that estado de emergencia doesn’t always mean state of emergency, but why?

Although Spanish-speaking lawyers and politicians will often use estado de emergencia to refer to an actual state of emergency, that meaning only comes into play in situations of national danger or disaster (think terrorist attack, earthquake, hurricane; events beyond our control that turn the world upside-down). At the denotational level, estado de emergencia and state of emergency are equivalent. We know this because the denotational level is that of dictionary meaning, so the dictionary definitions will line up.

But these definitions do not always line up connotationally. Look at the following example:

…el estado de emergencia abarca un hecho cuyo ámbito temporal difiere según circunstancias modales de épocas y sitios. Se trata de una situación extraordinaria, que gravita sobre el orden económico-social, con su carga de perturbación acumulada, en variables de escasez, pobreza, penuria o indigencia, origina un estado de necesidad al que hay que ponerle fin. La etiología de esa situación, sus raíces profundas y elementales, y en particular sus consecuencias sobre el Estado y la sociedad, al influir sobre la subsistencia misma de la organización jurídica y política, o el normal desenvolvimiento de sus funciones, autoriza al Estado a restringir el ejercicio normal de algunos derechos patrimoniales tutelados por la Constitución.

Clearly, we’re not talking about an emergency in the terms described above. This estado de emergencia is a slightly different beast. At the connotational level, this is telling us something additional. It’s not saying that we’re taking temporary measures to pick up the pieces after some kind of unforeseeable or unavoidable disaster. It’s saying that we’re putting constitutional rights on hold exceptionally to fix some kind of governmental problem.

A legal expert should immediately be able to associate this kind of emergencia with Carl Schmitt’s Ausnahmezustand, because it’s simply a matter of Latin American legal history regarding where the idea of putting constitutional guarantees “on hold” came from in the first place. But even if legal history isn’t your thing, a connotational analysis should have led you to the conclusion that emergency wasn’t the right fit, with the bit about “autoriza al Estado a restringir el ejercicio normal de algunos derechos patrimoniales tutelados por la Constitución” being your biggest contextual clue.

Some legal scholars have studied this in much more depth than I can offer in a blog post and have even gone to the trouble of offering groups of problem words that will often have sundry connotations across legal systems and languages. Alcarez and Hughes, for example, offer the following: 

  • Fight, combat, oppose, resist, withstand, contest, contend and argue
  • Gap and loophole
  • Breach, infringement, violation, contravention, transgression

As useful as such lists are, we can’t rely on lists alone. Legal translators must read critically and pick up on contextual clues that point to potential connotational problems.

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