Earlier this year I decided to get to the bottom of how I translate contracts. I had my way — settled and which made sense to me — but I wanted to dig a little deeper.
For one thing, I felt I had a very narrow register. I did the same thing every time. Basically, a mixture of what I was taught on my master’s a few years ago and what I’d learnt myself, before and since then. I thought it was time to pull my head out of the sand and to test my template and criteria for translating contracts.
Another reason for wanting to do this was that I was starting to see other people’s contract translations more often, particularly reviewing colleagues not specialising in legal translation. And while these translations were pretty good, accurate at least, they were often inconsistent and sometimes a little awkward in places. With a tiny bit of tweaking, they could be made a lot better.
So, as well as wanting to make sure I knew what I was doing for myself, I wanted to broaden my register to make sure I was standing on firm ground when reviewing or judging from a distance. One thing is being able to justify what you do to clients; another is saying what other people should do. I knew my way was right, satisfactory at least, but I didn’t know enough about the other ways.
Basically, the idea was to test how I translate contracts and identify guidelines, both for me and others, particularly people who may not translate contracts that often.
Because contract translations are a type of translation that people not particularly specialising in legal translation often find themselves doing — either because they seem easy (not as daunting as some other legal documents) or they can’t say no to a good client. After all, all sorts of clients find themselves needing a contract translation on occasions.
And, as I said above, while these translations are usually pretty good (the important bits are accurate), they’re often a bit of a mix and match of terminology and style. I also suspect they might have caused the translator more pain than necessary.
So, as well as learning as much as I can about drafting and translating contracts, I’m also trying to draw out some of the distinctions and rules of thumb that I find useful when translating contracts, all of which is going into a style guide I’m currently working on, and some of which will be in a talk I’ll be doing at the upcoming MET conference in Coimbra.
What have I discovered so far? Quite a lot, actually. I’ve even changed how I translate contracts because of it.
I followed a more traditional style when translating contracts. As I was taught and as I’d seen most translators do. I suspect it’s the default style for translators, particularly those translating from civil law languages. At least in the case of Spanish, the source language lends itself quite nicely to a traditional style.
Now, however, that traditional style seems a bit stuffy to me. There’s probably no need to dress up contract translations in the typical legal language we learn and then learn to replicate. Particularly if we’re aiming for usable, useful and understandable translations.
I mention here that the full circle Bryan A Garner suggests lawyers should go through of learning legalese, using it and then discarding might be similar for translators. But, in truth and depending on their previous studies and experience (excepting law and lawyers maybe), for translators we probably could add on a step at the beginning (that’s probably applicable to law students, too):
0) Replicate legalese from assorted chunks in memory.
Then if we ever do get to trying to improve our translations, we move on to the other stages of learning, or perfecting, legalese (i.e., applying it better — we all know what it looks and sounds like) and maybe even coming full circle.
So, that’s where all the contract business is coming from.