True Term of Art or Hybrid Term?

law and language Feb 15, 2021

In my last post, I referenced the open texture of language and how it relates to law and translation. I ended my post with a teaser: “Most legal translators believe that true terms of art are the real problem terms in translation. My argument? They’re not. Instead, our problem terms are hybrid terms – words that appear to have an ordinary meaning, but don’t.” I didn’t stop there because I’m devilish, but because I like to break down complex ideas into bite-sized chunks. So today, we’re tackling two complex ideas: terms of art and hybrid terms. 

Now I have an inkling about what you’re thinking. You already know what terms of art are. They are words or phrases that have a precise, specialized meaning within the legal field. Kudos to you for owning a dictionary! But really, what does that mean when we’re translating? 

Look at the following list of words. Which ones would you classify as terms of art?

If you’re like most of my students, you probably classified all of them as terms of art because you consider them all to have a “precise, specialized meaning within the legal field.” Your logic is impeccable. The problem though is not your logic, it’s how most dictionaries define terms of art. Terms of art are more than what dictionaries will have you believe they are. In fact, they have something that makes them unique and different from other legal terms that also have “precise, specialized meaning”: their meaning is jurisdiction-dependent and they are not heavily nuanced in context. Think of a word like injunction. Injunction is not hard to translate because it can mean different things. It’s difficult to translate because its meaning is entirely jurisdiction-dependent to the point that your target language/jurisdiction probably doesn’t have any true legal equivalent (and notice the problem here is legal, not simply linguistic).

Meanwhile other terms are hard to translate for the opposite reason. They have legal equivalents in the target language/jurisdiction but their meaning in the source language is heavily nuanced. Let’s use this month’s 60 Spanish translations for the word claim as an example. If you’ve downloaded this month’s free glossary, you know that I took a single word (claim) and showed you 60 Spanish translations with that one term. This tells us three things about the word claim:

  • It has precise, specialized meaning (like terms of art) but…
  • Its specialized meaning is not tied only to its jurisdiction of origin (meaning, claim will mean very similar things to English speakers throughout the English-speaking world, whether they’re in New York, Toronto or Sydney); AND
  • It is heavily nuanced in context. 

So in Spanish, for example, claim can mean demanda, reclamación, querella, pretensión, argumento, etc. Combine it with the word patent (as in patent claim) and it means reivindicación. Now turn it into administrative expense claim and it becomes crédito por gastos administrativos. Now add the preposition “to,” as in claim to German citizenship, and it becomes derecho a la nacionalidad alemana. Notice how in each of these examples, the term claim still meets our dictionary definition of a term of art. But is it?

No, it isn’t! A word that can mean over 60 different things is anything but precise. So if it’s not a true term of art, what is it?

 If you guessed hybrid term, you’re right! So what is a hybrid term? It is a term that: 

  • Like true terms of art has a precise, specific meaning, but…
  • Is only precise in its specific context, making the term heavily nuanced. 

Think of hybrid terms as technical words that behave like chameleons, changing their technical meaning in each individual context. 

I argued last week that problem terms in translation are not true terms of art. Instead, they are hybrid terms. In my next post, I’ll show you some translation fails that revolve entirely around the translator’s inability to identify hybrid terms as such. So join me next week to further explore terms of art and hybrid terms in legal translation.

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