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Balancing Fidelity and Transparency: Formal Equivalence

What are we talking about when we talk about formal equivalence? According to Harvey, formal equivalence or ‘linguistic equivalence’ means a ‘word-for-word’ translation. Using examples from French into English, Harvey holds that authors differ over the acceptability of formal equivalence, but still maintain that formal equivalence is the dominant method in legal translation; which “[i]deologically speaking […] is in keeping with the dogma, long imposed on legal translators, of literal translation or adherence to the letter rather than the spirit” (Harvey 2002).

Harvey’s examples are not original. Citing other authors, he exemplifies formal equivalence with “Conseil constitutionnel = Constitutional Counsel” (Cairns and McKeon 1995) and “notaire = notary” (Dickson 1994) (for an analysis of how this second example fails between Spanish and English, see (Arturo 2019)). But aside from lacking in originality,...

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Common Vices in Legal Writing and Translation

“To avoid nudity, the back-handed passive is almost obligatory: ‘It is suggested-,’ ‘It is proposed-,’ ‘It would seem-.’ Whether the writers really suppose that such constructions clothe them in anonymity so that people can not guess who is suggesting and who is proposing, I do not know. I do know that such forms frequently lead to the kind of sentence that looks as though it had been translated from the German by someone with a rather meager knowledge of English.” (Fred Rodell, Yale Law School)

As lawyer-linguists and translators, we’ve all had to suffer through circumlocution and stylistic weakness. We’ve all scratched our heads wondering what, if anything, the primary drafter intended to say, and more importantly, how, if at all, we can capture the intended message in the target language.

In an attempt to sound serious and dignified, most legal drafters resort to the same vices. And, what’s worse, in an attempt to...

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