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Translational Equivalence: The Tip of the Iceberg in Legal Translation

translation theory May 09, 2021

In my last post, I mentioned that if we view the difference between common law and civil law as a matter of codification v. judge-made law alone, we’re missing a key piece of the puzzle. Our legal traditions don’t simply differ in terms of what sources of law they use, but of how those multiple sources compel legal actors to think differently. 

Judge-made law means parting from the concrete (the facts of the case) to the abstract (a general rule that can then be applied to similar cases in the future); and this in turn means relying on inductive reasoning

Codification, on the other hand, means the exact opposite. Codified jurisdictions part from the abstract (the law laid down in the codes) and then subsume the facts of the case under those abstract definitions and rules. This, alternatively, means relying on deductive reasoning

These factors converge to mean that our brains are wired differently in law school. So while a lawyer from the civil law...

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To Deduce or Induce, that is the Question

translation theory Apr 06, 2021

Legal actors do not think the same way in the common law world as they do in the civil law world. I don’t mean that they have thoughts and opinions of their own, I mean that their thought processes differ by virtue of how these two legal traditions look at their sources of law. 

While common lawyers are masters of induction, civil lawyers are masters of deduction. Where common lawyers see a need to focus on facts, civil lawyers see a need to focus on statute. In law school, our brains are rewired to look at the world differently and this explains why we argue cases the way we do and ultimately why we write the way we do. It also explains why there’s often no translation equivalence between countries in the two legal traditions, but we’ll work our way up to that over the next few posts. For now, let’s keep it simple and start with how our brains are rewired. 

When we think of what differentiates common law countries from civil law countries, we often...

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Balancing Fidelity and Transparency: Formal Equivalence

translation theory Mar 29, 2019

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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Translation Methodologies

translation theory Mar 15, 2019

A little peek at one of the videos from our Comparative Law for Serious Legal Translators course. Registration to that course is closed, but don't worry, we have more courses coming soon! 


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Balancing Fidelity and Transparency: Introducing a New Post Series

translation theory Mar 08, 2019

According to both Mellinkoff and every experienced legal translator and/or lawyer-linguist everywhere, legal discourse is formulated in a specific language or sublanguage that is known as “the language of the law” (Mellinkoff 1963). Like all other languages, the language of the law has its own syntactic, semantic, and pragmatic rules which form basic means of communication between legal actors. Because of that, the language of the law is considered by linguists to be a Language for a Specific Purpose (LSP); however, it is unique and different from other LSPs in that, unlike other technical language which is typically universal, the language of the law is the product of specific historical and cultural events that vary significantly from one jurisdiction to another.

All languages serve the obvious function of communication. And, needless to say, so do LSPs. But the language of the law serves two main additional functions: one regulatory and the other informative. This...

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