Academic journal article Contemporary Readings in Law and Social Justice

Legal Translation: Principles of Success

Academic journal article Contemporary Readings in Law and Social Justice

Legal Translation: Principles of Success

Article excerpt


The article covers the fundamental characteristics of legal language at large and those of legal English in particular, including specific syntax, lexis - both general and special, polysdisciplinarity, and ambiguity. While analyzing the specificity of legalese, the author pays special attention to its lexical and syntactic challenges and the problem of its obscurity expressed both in terminological inconsistency and structural indeterminacy. Characterizing the principles of legal translation, the author emphasizes the importance of translators' competence in at least two legal systems and cultures, proficiency in comparative law, and research skills. The issues of permissible clarification and purpose-oriented adaptation are scrutinized closely as the plain legal language movement gains more advocates and proponents round the world.

Keywords: legalese, lexical and syntactic challenges, translation competence, comparative law, permissible clarification

1. Introduction

It is hard to agree with the self-evident truth of the definition given to legal translation in Wikipedia: "Legal translation is the translation of texts within the field of law."1

In most cases legal translation is translation of texts both inside and beyond the field of law, as the field of law proper has a composite, multi-aspect, and multidisciplinary character. In the small world of today, legal texts are mostly intertwined systems of multidisciplinary nature, where legal terms are mixed with political terms (constitutional law, public law, administrative law, etc.), economic and financial terms (financial law, budget law, tax law, customs law, commercial law, corporate law, patent law, copyright law), military and technical terms (military law, maritime law), social and cultural terms (labour law, marriage law) and even medical terms (criminal law, administrative law, etc.).

As is stated by Mattila (2006), the lexicon of the language of law is closely intertwined with the social functions of the law evolving along with the evolution of the law.2 Numerous social functions of the law and its interconnections with economy, insurance, education, medicine, defence, human rights, etc, so the language of law has a polyfunctional and polydisciplinary character.

The literature on legal translation principles is not so extensive. And such literature as exists relates largely to particular translation problems and to a lesser extent to the methodology of legal translation at large.

Mellinkoff (1963) observing the state of written legal language in America, concludes that "in a vast literature the portion devoted to the language of the law is a single grain of sand at the bottom of a great sea. The profession is properly more concerned with rights, obligations, and wrongs, and the incidental procedures... At this writing, the subject of "language" is absent from most law indexes and only in capsule form in the rest. It is certainly not too early, nor is it too late, to commence examination of the language lawyers' use."3 Much has been done since 1963, yet, there is a long way ahead.

Speaking about legal language, we cannot do without analyzing legal texts, and when discussing legal texts we cannot speak about them in general. So, generalizing as much as we can, we cannot avoid distinguishing legal texts into at least three types of legal writing as is suggested by Hiltunen (1990) (1) academic texts which consist of academic research journals and legal textbooks, (2) juridical texts covering court judgements or law reports, and (3) legislative or statutory writings consisting of Acts of Parliament, contracts, treaties, etc.4

It seems reasonable to add one more type of legal writings - d) highly formalised juridical texts where form determines the content - a type uniting wills, powers of attorney, certificates, bylaws, etc.

2. Fundamentals of Legal Language

Legal English theorists (Solan 1993, Macdonald 2006, Mattila 2006 et al) almost unanimously admit that legalese is replete with superfluous archaic words, Latin expressions, and pompous syntax constructions. …

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