4 Legal Translation Fails Involving Hybrid Terms

legal translation Feb 22, 2021

In my last post, I explained what hybrid terms are and argued that most translation fails are a result of the translator not being able to identify these terms. The best way to identify hybrid terms is by focusing on their number one trait: they are polysemic. And the fact that they are polysemic makes them more complex semantically. And that is the whole reason why they are so hard to recognize.

The dilemma for translators usually arises at the connotational level or relates to the term's ambiguity, partial synonymy with other terms, or context-dependence. Let’s look at some examples: 


Incorrect Translation


The testator died without issue.

El testador murió sin problemas.

In legal contexts, issue is a hybrid term. As a verb, it can mean expedir in some contexts and notificar in others. As a noun it can mean cuestión or, as in this case, descendencia. While I’m glad the testator no tuvo problemas al morir, what the source text is really saying is that he or she had no children. 

To be legally binding as a contract, a promise must be exchanged for adequate consideration


Para ser legalmente vinculante como contrato, se debe intercambiar una promesa por una consideración adecuada.


It’s an eyesore, I know. And even if we look beyond the fact that the second half of this sentence makes no sense, there’s also the concept of consideration to consider (pun intended). Of course consideration can mean consideración, but it’s a hybrid term and in this context it means contraprestación justa o adecuada.

Deberá hacerse el nombramiento de curador, en lo cual consiste el discernimiento de la cúratela, con conocimiento del defensor de menores.


The curator must be appointed, which is what the discernment of the curator consists of, with the knowledge of the defender of minors.


There are several things wrong with this translation, but let’s focus on the hybrid term discernimiento. Although discernimiento can mean discernment in some contexts, this isn’t one of them. This hybrid term means award of curatorship

El Ministerio Público exige fiscalización para evitar las irregularidades en las obras públicas.

The Public Ministry requires oversight to avoid irregularities in public works.


Again, there is more than one thing wrong with this sentence, but let’s focus on the hybrid term fiscalización. Supervision or oversight will often work, but right now the term we’re looking for is compliance monitoring.


So how do we avoid these mistakes when translating? There’s no easy answer. For starters, we need to be able to tell true terms of art from hybrid terms. This requires building up subject-matter knowledge and actively practicing! A ton! And some of my resources will help you do that, including my upcoming post series on translation techniques. Stay tuned! 

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