Legalese: Translating the Language of the Law

Somewhat sarcastically—or desperately, depending on who you are talking to—considered a language in its own right, legal speak in any tongue is a hard nut to crack for those not acquainted with it. Its specific terminology extends far beyond individual terms and encompasses an extensive set of phrases and expressions. The latter are extremely rigid, to such a degree that even the slightest change can invalidate them, and since the raison d’êtreof any court document, decree, contract, waiver or disclaimer is its inherent validity, every effort is made to avoid such changes. This of course often results in an almost archaic language that requires some decoding.

Rule no. 1: Know thy glossary

Familiarity with this specific vocabulary and jargon, an aptitude for deciphering the “code” in its individual context and the ability to work said code into different types of legal texts are the top requirements for the translator, which applies to his/her source and target languages. As the archaic elements of legal lingo may not have changed much since the early days of a particular judicial system for the reasons shown above, the job of the translator could be mistaken for simply memorizing century-old terminology. His core challenge, however, consists in determining where an equivalent in the other language (and system) actually exists and is called for and where he or she is forced to use a literal, yet comprehensible, translation. Lawyers in most countries, for instance, will use a severability clause in standard contracts, and the translator has to be familiar with its designation and phrasing in the target language(s), which is not necessarily a word-by-word rendition (“Salvatorische Klausel” in German, for instance, from Latin salvatorius, meaning maintaining or preserving, and “Clause de sauvegarde” in French, meaning safety or protection). Were we to translate the above into English, we would end up with “Preservation” or “Protection clause” rather than “Severability clause” if unfamiliar with the concept in question, and thus introducing an inaccuracy.

Rule no. 2: Know thy concepts

Then there is the opposite case. Even in countries with similar legal systems, like the US and many of the European countries, different structures (e.g. the court system) and concepts exist that do not have an exact equivalent. If we look to Asia or the Middle East, the gap becomes even more apparent. Many books and papers have been written about how a domestic court should handle and/or interpret specific laws and regulations of other countries (ranging from the difference in the validity of electronic signatures—Germany and the US—to the notion of Mahr, the Muslim custom where the groom has to give a gift to the bride in consideration of the marriage). The translator finds himself to a certain extent in the middle of the discussions without being able to wait for an outcome, but rather with the obligation to find a workable solution for the text or document that awaits translation. In that sense, the language of the law is in just as much fluctuation as all other linguistic expressions, and needs to be adapted to new circumstances and developments. Research is a constant companion to all professional translators, and an in-depth knowledge of legal processes, systems and concepts is the foundation to be built upon.

Rule no. 3: Write for thy audience

Writing for your audience bears yet more responsibilities in this context than it does in a purely commercial or marketing context. The translated text needs to be not only understandable and readable, but it must be applicable to the target group. While contracts will usually contain a clause asserting that they are only enforceable in the language they were originally written in, disclaimers, waivers, non-disclosure or license agreements that appear as part of product packaging or online rely on their binding effect in translation (ironically, the latter example also relies on the disputed electronic signature discussed above). Enhancing the readability of translated legal texts does not involve simplifying complicated sentence structures—even though one of the characteristics that make legalese so “foreign” is its intricate and elaborate (read: long-winded) phrasing. Rather, the wording used in the translation must be familiar and part of the legal canon of the target country. If a new concept has to be introduced, the terminology must come as close as possible to the terminology that would be used in the target language if its speakers were to adopt this concept into their legal system (and if you know the severability clause, you know this provision comes pretty close to it).

In witness whereof, I assure you that this article may not be used against me in any court of law in any language.

Nanette Gobel



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