This is the first of a series of posts for legal translation newbies (or old bees who need a refresher). This series will start with the basics and slowly build up to more complex legal-linguistic problems. My examples and translations will be in Spanish, but even if Spanish is not one of your working languages, my hope is that this series might still help you understand certain concepts and terminology in English.
So let’s start at the beginning. Today’s question is: What do we mean when we say common law?
Common law can be used in several different senses.
In its narrowest possible sense (sense 1), it can mean: “the law found in or traced back to the decisions of a particular group of courts which existed in England from the early middle ages until the late nineteenth century—the King’s courts, also referred to as common law courts” (Cartwright 2007, 2013). In that narrow sense, common law can, to some extent, be understood in...
Legal language can be very stiff and is all too often riddled with old-fashioned syntax and antiquated vocabulary. This is, in part, out of tradition. But legal language also typically preserves terms of art that were coined many centuries ago. It does so, because, for legal experts who know exactly what those terms of art mean, they have the advantage of precision and clarity.
The downside, of course, is that when documents are layperson-facing, the reader will be lost. That’s why so many jurisdictions are moving toward plain language for documents that are aimed, not at specialists, but at the general public.
The question, however, is what are translators to do when they come across syntactic oddities arising out of the linguistic stiffness of the law? We know literal translators won’t work.
Think of phrases like witnesseth that. While in many contexts it may mean attests or affirms that, in others, like contracts, it may mean nothing at all and is just there out of...