I spent almost all of last year going on about how literality is simply not a good standard in legal translation. This year, instead of preaching to you, I intend to give you actionable techniques to help you avoid literality in your translations and master legal language.
Mastery in any field has to start somewhere. And in intellectual fields like legal translation, it starts with our personal libraries. In addition to good monolingual and bilingual dictionaries, legal translators have to be equipped with the right tools to help them overcome the lack of legal-linguistic equivalence that characterizes legal language.
If you happen to have the same language combinations as me, this post will tell you exactly what you need to get started. If not, I encourage you to read on anyway to get the gist of things and find similar resources for your language pairs. Either way, dictionaries will only get you so far. Remember: legal translators are expected to excel in language and the law. And you can’t excel at what you don’t know.
1) Manuals of style: It’s important to have manuals of style (also known as style guides) in your target language, but one thing legal translators often overlook is how important it is to reference them in your source language, too. Why in your source language? To assist you in interpreting the source text. So if you work from English, for example, you’ll need to know things like what em and en dashes imply at the connotational level to better convey the message in your target language. And that’s the kind of thing you learn by referencing manuals of style.
Personally, I recommend owning at the least The Chicago Manual of Style and The Associated Press Stylebook. They are both aimed at different target users (none of whom are translators, by the way) but both are equally essential references. And of course if you work with clients on the other side of the pond, The Oxford Style Manual can also come in handy.
For Spanish, I’m a big fan of Manuel Seco’s Diccionario de dudas y dificultades de la lengua española, Alicia María Zorilla’s Dudario: Diccionario de consultas sobre el uso de la lengua española (and pretty much every other book she has on Spanish usage) and the Spanish Royal Academy’s Nueva gramática de la lengua española.
2) Law manuals: These are much easier to find in the civil law world. For Spanish, I recommend searching by country. The law differs significantly from one Spanish-speaking country to the next. But there are some authors who are pretty popular throughout Latin American countries because of their comparative law perspective. These include:
The common law world doesn’t have anything as systematic and structured as what we’re used to in the civil law world, but nice light reads on American law (with some interesting bits of legal history) include Lawrence Friedman’s American Law: An Introduction and, for a good civil law versus common law comparison, John Henry Merryman’s The Civil Law Tradition. But these are just starting points. You’ll need to dig much deeper than that and I’ll recommend some more books throughout the year.
3) Subscriptions to bar associations: You don’t have to be a lawyer to join some bar associations and the perks of joining as a non-lawyer (in addition to the obvious networking opportunities) are nifty little discounts on courses as well as resources and other benefits. Bar association courses are designed for lawyers to go in-depth into complex areas of the law. For translators, they provide a wealth of insights and vocabulary from professionals practicing law today.
Overwhelmed? Here are three tips:
Where to go from here?