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The Close Enough Approach and Admitting Defeat in Legal Translation

legal translation Jun 03, 2021

Functional equivalence is one of the three translational Es we’ve been exploring on this blog. In theory, it means using a referent in the target language system that is similar enough to the source language system so as to convey the intended message but with significant connotational or denotational differences. In plain English, that means using a word that’s ‘close enough’ to what the source word means to facilitate communication, but not so close that the target and source terms mirror each other exactly.

A classic example is hipoteca and mortgage. In many Spanish-speaking jurisdictions, hipoteca denotes a right in rem of guarantee. And while a mortgage denotes the involvement of a bank, an hipoteca will often involve an escribano or notario (i.e. civil-law notary) instead (or in addition to). 

While some authors believe that functional equivalence is “the ideal method of translation” (Weston 1991) others sustain that “it is...

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Translational Equivalence: The Three Es

legal translation May 18, 2021

The Three Es are formal equivalence, functional equivalence, and non equivalence. I like to think of them as word-for-word (formal), close enough (functional), and admitting defeat (non). All three have their upsides and downsides. And defaulting to a single one all the time is not the best approach to legal translation.

It’s important to understand all three and to know when and where each can be put into play. So in this post, we’re going to start with the first equivalence. When is literality a plus and when is it a minus?

Let’s jump right in. Look at the following sentence translated entirely using formal equivalence:

 

Source

Word-for-word target (NOT recommended)

Con el propósito de identificar el pago omitido, es posible que nos veamos en la necesidad de auditar las cuentas del Prestador a fin de lograr una mejor comprensión de las razones por las que se generó el error.

 

For the purpose of identifying the missing...

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But really, what is context?

legal translation Mar 15, 2021

You might have heard translators say, “Context is king”! But what does context actually mean? Well, it depends on who you ask. 

If you ask a pragmatist, context is the actual physical and temporal environment in which a communication is taking place. In technical terms, this is also known as the ‘context of utterance.’ It’s the when and the where, which naturally are useful questions to ask ourselves as we translate. 

We can also look at context from a different angle (its so called “co-text”), which is that of the immediate verbal environment in which a specific utterance takes place. In plain language, that means we can figure out context by looking at the words or phrases immediately before and after the utterance we’re trying to decipher. 

But there’s a third way we can look at context, which is extralinguistic and consists of everything the society concerned deposits into these words or sentences. Remember...

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Connotation and Denotation in Legal Translation: Handle with Care

legal translation Mar 09, 2021

The language of the law is inherently open-textured. Its open texture creates an environment where hybrid terms flourish. Hybrid terms can be vague. Legal translators apply different techniques to bridle this vagueness.  In my last post, I showed you one technique that consists of comparing and contrasting the source word’s extension and contextual intention with that of each of its candidate translations to narrow down which term best fits the context at both levels. 

Today I want to show you another technique for analyzing denotation and connotation. Denotational and connotational comparison is essential when candidate terms may have a whole different world of meaning associated with them.

Think of the Spanish term estado de emergencia. You might recall this as one of my recent terms of the week on Instagram. There I explained that estado de emergencia doesn’t always mean state of emergency, but why?

Although Spanish-speaking lawyers and politicians will...

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What is lexical vagueness and how does it affect legal translation?

legal translation Mar 01, 2021

If we learned anything about language from Saussure, it’s that language is arbitrary. When putting a “face” (read signifier) on a “concept” (read signified), the different languages spoken throughout the world do so quite randomly (albeit within an existing structure, of course). Think of Saussure’s classic examples:

The Latin equos is no less random than the English horse or the Spanish caballo. No term is more accurate than the other to describe the four legged animal in the above picture. And speakers of each language will be able to understand what is being referred to when they hear the word for it in their own language. 

How each language ended up with each term is a matter of linguistic history, the evolution of related languages, etc. But all languages are equally good at putting thoughts into words (or lexical units) so that others can understand what is being said.

So if language captures concepts so well, why does vagueness...

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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: 

Source

Incorrect Translation

Rationale

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,...

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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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