Legal translation

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Complexity of legal translation

Legal translation is the translation of texts within the field of law. As law is a culture-dependent subject field, legal translation is not necessarily linguistically transparent. Intransparency in translation can be avoided somewhat by use of Latin legal terminology, where possible.

Intransparency can lead to expensive misunderstandings in terms of a contract, for example, resulting in avoidable lawsuits. Legal translation is thus usually done by specialized law translators. Conflicts over the legal impact of a translation can be avoided by indicating that the text is "authentic" i.e. legally operative on its own terms or instead is merely a "convenience translation", which itself is not legally operative. Courts only apply authentic texts and do not rely on "convenience" translations in adjudicating rights and duties of litigants.

Most legal writing is exact and technical, seeking to precisely define legally binding rights and duties. Thus, precise correspondence of these rights and duties in the source text and in the translation is essential. As well as understanding and precisely translating the legal rights and duties established in the translated text, legal translators must also bear in mind the legal system of the source text (ST) and the legal system of the target text (TT) which may differ greatly from each other: Anglo-American common law, Islamic law, or customary tribal law for examples.

Apart from terminological lacunae (lexical gaps), textual conventions in the source language are often culture-dependent and may not correspond to conventions in the target culture (see e.g. Nielsen 2010). Linguistic structures that are often found in the source language may have no direct equivalent structures in the target language. The translator therefore has to be guided by certain standards of linguistic, social and cultural equivalence between the language used in the source text (ST) to produce a text (TT) in the target language. Those standards correspond to a variety of different principles defined as different approaches to translation in translation theory. Each of the standards sets a certain priority among the elements of ST to be preserved in TT. For example, following the functional approach, translators try to find target language structures with the same functions as those in the source language thus value the functionality of a text fragment in ST more than, say, the meanings of specific words in ST and the order in which they appear there.

Different approaches to translation should not be confused with different approaches to translation theory. The former are the standards used by translators in their trade while the latter are just different paradigms used in developing translation theory.

Few jurists are familiar with terms of translation theory. They may ask interpreters and translators to provide verbatim translation. They often view this term as a clear standard of quality that they desire in TT. However, verbatim translation usually is undesireable due to different grammar structures as well as different legal terms or rules in different legal systems. Jurists asking for "verbatim" translation are likely making the lay misconception that an accurate translation is achieved by substituting "the correct" words of the target language one-for-one from the ST. In reality, they just want to have a faithful and fluent translation of ST, having no doubt that a good translator will provide it. They do not realize that word-by-word translations could sound as complete nonsense in the target language, and usually have no idea of different professional translation standards. Many translators would probably choose to adhere to the standard that they themselves find more appropriate in a given situation based on their experience rather than to attempt to educate the court personnel.[citation needed]

Legal translators often consult specialized bilingual or polyglot law dictionaries. Care should be taken, as some bilingual law dictionaries are of poor quality and their use may lead to mistranslation.

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