The Essentials of Legal Translation

Translation poses an insurmountable problem. When replicating a text, a translator can only aspire to move as close as is feasible to the author’s original intention and style; the result is an unfinished product – always unfinished… – which strays as little as possible from the mould. Although some translations can be considered genuine masterpieces, requesting a perfect reproduction of a source text would, therefore, be like asking the sea to produce two identical waves.

This rather disheartening premise (you don’t need to tell me, I’ve spent more than a decade coming to terms with it) is applicable to every translation type. To legal translation too, of course. With a difference. In other areas, for instance literary translation, slightly distorting the original text could, essentially, lead to an omitted or exaggerated detail when describing a character, or to a more or less refined expressive form than originally chosen by the author in a given chapter. In legal translation, by contrast, the slightest interpretative slip when translating even a single word could transform a local court sentence into a nightmarish 100-page ordeal in a court of appeal, with unpredictable consequences for both lawyer and client. No, no-one can simply “get by” with Google Translate in this context.

Like any other type of specialised translation, legal translation is the realm of experts: individuals who, as defined by the Spanish Royal Academy, possess “specialist knowledge of a particular science or art.” This knowledge can be acquired through theory (a Law, Economics or Political Sciences degree…) and practice (practice law, public bodies, international organisations etc…).

There is, however, a catch. Unlike other types of specialised translation, this knowledge is not universal; indeed, geographically speaking, it is as varied as the languages through which it is transmitted. A chemical reaction, an injection engine, a computer virus or reproduction by spores are easily-translatable concepts into any target language; the description of their phenomenonolgy is identical anywhere on the planet. And herein lies one of legal translation‘s greatest difficulties: laws, customs and proceedings all vary from country to country, or even from region to region. The very word used to determine a legal ‘habitat’ (country, region, State, autonomous community…) can itself comprise an enormously complex legal reality, in which notions such as “State” or “nation” – even within the same language – may allude to different socio-political bodies, depending on the location and context of their use… or on the historical-political perspective from which they are documented.

In order to address all of these complexities, our translator must, first and foremost, possess a sublime understanding of legal language as employed in the target language; due to new laws and decrees, this terminology is in constant evolution and is, therefore, ever-more complicated. In the case of Spanish, there are innumerable examples of legal terms whose meaning have transformed with the passage of time: quiebra has become concursal, for instance; acusado first evolved into impugnado and then into investigado or encausado; and nowadays faltas are referred to as delitos leves… And this alone is not enough. A legal translator also needs to know legal concepts inside out, not only in the language of origin, but also in the country of origin. You may think ‘that’s a big ask!’ and you would be right. In the case of Portuguese, a document requiring translation may be from any of the ten different countries where Portuguese is the official language; in the case of English, this number increases to sixty, with each country being divided, in turn, into hundreds of autonomous territories and local bodies, every one with their own respective sets of laws.

Luckily for us translators, most nations fall under one of the two main Legal systems: Common Law, based on Anglo-Saxon influences, and Civil Law, the evolutionary result of a medieval adaptation of Roman Law, which principally corresponds to countries where Romance languages are spoken. Even if translators have received specialised education and training in only one of the systems, familiarisation with both is very important; this allows him or her to make quick associations between systems, never forgetting, of course, to stop and study the each region’s specific idiosyncrasies.

As an example, one term which prevents many English to Spanish legal translators from sleeping at night is ‘trust’, which can be translated into Spanish in a variety of different possible ways – confianza, depósito, fideicomiso, fondo… – each with the potential to totally change the meaning of a phrase, paragraph… or even a whole document. A quick Internet search directs us to extensive examples of incorrect translations of this problematic word. If we want to accurately and confidently translate this, and many other concepts with equally open-ended interpretative options, it is fundamental to know how to distinguish, with surgical precision, between their different meanings and their counterparts in foreign Law. Given the aforementioned correlation between Romance languages and Civil Law and Anglo-Saxon languages and Common Law, if in doubt knowledge of more languages than the source and target languages in question can be very helpful for translators, allowing for consultation of previous translations carried out in language combinations which mediate between the two systems.

Legal translation is no stranger to the phenomenon of globalisation. This is especially true in the world of Finance, where the use of Anglophone terms in Spanish is increasingly common: offshore, rating, commodities or swaps are words uttered nowadays outside of our professional sphere, either in the media or by a friend or family member who has read/heard them in the media. Admittedly, much of this vocabulary does not have a direct equivalent in Spanish and, precisely because of the media’s globalising power, this is more and more frequently the case. However, there is a trend towards unnecessarily borrowing English terms in situations where a semantically identical word in Spanish exists. In other words, the simplest option is chosen: non-translation. Is that what we want to use a translator’s services for? Let’s start reading this article again, from the top…

About Francisco de Borxa González Tenreiro

Ferrol (Galicia, Spain), 1976. BA in Law from the University of Santiago de Compostela and certificate in Translation from Birmingham City College (United Kingdom). Legal and Financial translation specialist with over 10 years' translation and interpreting experience in Spain, the United Kingdom and Portugal. He was editor-in-chief for numerous bilingual sectorial publications, has written and won awards for opinion columns and is the founder-director of englishpanish.

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