But really, what is context?

legal translation Mar 15, 2021

You might have heard translators say, “Context is king”! But what does context actually mean? Well, it depends on who you ask. 

If you ask a pragmatist, context is the actual physical and temporal environment in which a communication is taking place. In technical terms, this is also known as the ‘context of utterance.’ It’s the when and the where, which naturally are useful questions to ask ourselves as we translate. 

We can also look at context from a different angle (its so called “co-text”), which is that of the immediate verbal environment in which a specific utterance takes place. In plain language, that means we can figure out context by looking at the words or phrases immediately before and after the utterance we’re trying to decipher. 

But there’s a third way we can look at context, which is extralinguistic and consists of everything the society concerned deposits into these words or sentences. Remember connotation from my last post? Connotation is context in this sense of the term. It’s made up of the habits, expectations, conventions, and immediate associations that come with certain terms, and it can be asymmetrical across different languages and legal systems. 

This kind of lexical asymmetry happens when a term in the source language (let’s call it A) is ambiguous and its closest legal-linguistic equivalents in the target language (let’s call them B) are not ambiguous. And this problem can go both ways. We can also part from an ambiguous term in the source with multiple ambiguous equivalents in the target text. 

Let’s look at an example:

Non-Appropriations Clause. In the event no funds are appropriated for this agreement, Acme has the right in the 2021 fiscal year to terminate this contract without penalties of any sort. 

Appropriate can have many meanings, one of them being “to set apart for or to assign a particular purpose or use.” There is no lexical ambiguity in context; no reason to think the drafter meant anything other than if there aren’t any funds set aside for this agreement, then Acme can terminate the contract without penalties. It’s one of those nice rare cases of straight-forward legal writing 

Yet if we had to translate this same provision into Spanish, we’d need to tread very lightly, as careless Spanish drafting could render the translation ambiguous. 

How so? 

Glad you asked!

Appropriate is a term that is asymmetrically ambiguous. In this particular example, we’re looking at a case where A is clear in context, but its candidate translation is not. 

De no apropiarse fondos para los fines del presente, Acme… (did the translator mean appropriate as in set aside or appropriate as in take possession?). We can’t really tell and the contract clause itself doesn’t give us much to go on. 

So what are our options? That’s where synonymy comes in. Destinar is a synonym of apropiar that would be unambiguous in context. So synonymy is really about looking at the next candidate term in our list and checking if it is clearer than the ambiguous one. It’s really that simple. In fact, it’s so simple, one could argue that it isn’t a translation technique at all, just common sense.

And this isn’t limited to Spanish alone. Asymmetrical ambiguity occurs across all language combinations. It’s an inherent characteristic of language itself.

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