Official translations of Spanish legislation and translating in a vacuum

As reported here, the Spanish Ministry of Justice has made English and French translations of some Spanish legislation available on this page. While this is obviously great for making the Spanish legal system more accessible to foreigners, these translations are also a useful resource for legal translators, both as a starting point for researching terminology and also to get a second reading of the legislation.

Different translators and maybe different approaches

It’s worth noting that the translations have not all been done by the same translator. You can see this because the agency or translator is stated at the beginning of the translation, but it also becomes apparent on reading just a few lines. The first thing I noticed was that one text in particular had a lot more typos than the others. And while this is just a matter of the translation process (which evidently didn’t include enough proofreading!), when you go a little deeper, you also find differences that might indicate different translation approaches.

What type of legal translation?

It would be nice to know what criteria the translators were given, if any, for translating the legislation. It needed to be translated from Spanish into English, but what type of English? Legal English, of course, or maybe not. If the purpose of a translation is to inform, which it probably is in this case, there could be an argument for trying to use as much non-legal and neutral language as possible to make it more accessible. This would be quite difficult in practice, but even if you did use this approach, at some point you’d still have to make a decision as to what type of legal terminology to use for the legal concepts.

Apart from the choice of using terminology from the US or England and Wales, both common law systems, you also have the option of using terminology from English-speaking civil law or mixed systems, such as Scotland or Louisiana. There is also the option of keeping it as literal as possible except for universal concepts. This might end up being a bit like making it as non-legal as possible, and may have the disadvantage that it might not be understandable to anyone, least of all to foreign lawyers, who may be the only people actually interested in the translated legislation (apart from legal translators of course!), which probably gets pretty close to defeating the purpose.

Translating in a vacuum

There are advantages and disadvantages to each of these approaches. The interesting thing here, though, is that you have a far wider choice than you do for say translating a supply contract for an English law firm, in which case you really only have one option: to keep the register legal and use terminology from England and Wales. (That is, of course, until you come across a term that has no acceptable equivalent in common law. But that is a whole other story.) And while legal documents are often translated to be used in a foreign jurisdiction, legal translators, especially into-English legal translators, are also asked to translate documents into English for use in the country of origin (e.g., contracts for companies that deal with foreigners, documents for the EU).

So, this dilemma of having to choose what legal language to use does come up, and it is something that needs to be taken into account by both the outsourcer and the translator. Where this decision is left to you as the translator, this would probably mean translating into the legal language of the jurisdiction that you normally do, being careful to not unnecessarily use terms from other systems. And while you’d probably turn down jobs that are specifically for other legal systems, it would be an interesting challenge to try to translate into a “neutral”, international or European legal English. Although a true neutral legal translation would probably be impossible to achieve as you’d always have to base it on one particular native English system, be that common or civil, or UK or US based, which is what seems to end up happening in most cases. If not, where would you get the terminology from? Bar inventing it.

So what approach was used in these official legal translations?

As might be expected given that the translations were done by different translators, the approach does not appear to be consistent across all the documents or, in some cases, even within the documents.

US terminology is mixed with UK terminology. “Attorney” and “articles of incorporation” (US) are used for abogado and estatuos sociales on some occasions while and “solicitor” and “articles of association” (UK) are used on others; “lawyer” is also used. Interestingly enough, the always troublesome procurador is translated both as “court representative” and “Court Clerk”. (I prefer the first one, although “court procedural representative/lawyer” might be better.)

In terms of common or civil law, there does seem to be a greater use of common law terms. For instance, demanda de reconvención is translated as “counterclaim” instead of “reconventional demand”, which is used in civil law English-speaking jurisdictions.

An interesting one is legitimización activa. This is generally referred to as “standing to sue/claim/etc.” in common law, and while “standing to request review” or just “standing” might be good (common law) options in this particular case (Art. 511), it is translated as “active legitimation” (actually, “legitimisation”, but I assume that’s a typo), which could fall into the literal or civil law approach to translating terms. Although I’m not sure about this one; maybe it’s also used in common law jurisdictions. It might even be, or become, an example of an international- or at least European-English term.

Anyway, it’s not my aim to pick apart the translations here. I just wanted to give a few examples that might demonstrate different approaches. And it does look like different approaches were used, although in an ad hoc manner. It seems that, on this occasion, the translators may not have been given criteria to follow. They were probably left to translate as they best saw fit in a vacuum. Given the probable purpose of the texts, to inform, this might not be such a big deal. As for legal translators using these documents for terminology research, it just means that some caution needs to be exercised. But, then again, when is it not?

Image courtesy of safaris

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Written by Rob Lunn

Rob Lunn is a freelance translator based in Spain. He translates from Spanish and Catalan into English and specialises in legal translation.

5 comments
  1. Dear Rob,
    First of all, thank you for this interesting analysis of this collection of legislation. I have taken a quick look at the translations and these translations do not qualify as official translations as the authors are companies (a variety of translation agencies – quite a few, from the looks of it). Some purport to be “traducciones juradas” and others just say “traducción” so there is not even consistency in the description.
    Your analysis of the inconsistencies in civil law / common law is relevant but perhaps the most interesting question here is:
    “It would be nice to know what criteria the translators were given, IF ANY, for translating the legislation.”
    Probably none as a good source told me she was offered 200,000 words to translate in one month and turned down the project. She told them it simply couldn’t be done. But there’s always someone out there who will accept “any subject, any language, any deadline!” as many agencies happily state on their websites.
    An interesting entry would have been one relating to client education and what we can do in the legal translation industry to avoid a permanent problem (I’ve been working in this field and it’s always been the same old story – SOS – since I’ve started: increasing upward pressure on the number of words translators are expected to turn around – often 5,000 or 10,000 words per day – and increasing downward pressure on the rates offered). The mistakes you comment on are interesting but I also believe it is relevant that not even the titles of the laws (and that is a critical mistake) are free of typos. There is a legal “tex” and months in the lower case, etc. With titles like this you can only expect the worse in the actual translation.
    You say there was no proofreading. Perhaps there was no time or no budget, or both. Perhaps the client didn’t even contemplate the possibility of proofreading and assumed (like a lot of clients often do) that if it asked for “official translations” no proofreading is required as official translations are always perfect and no official translator could possibly ever make a mistake and the translation will suit any requirement, be completed in any deadline and be absolutely perfect for all audiences and purposes.
    This is what is often expected and assumed from official translations.
    And then, when there is a glaring error or even a error such as “the end user thinks there is too much legalese and it should be in plain(er) English” the agency or client turns round and says: “oh, as it was a sworn translation we didn’t think we needed to provide any instructions and didn’t think any guidance or proofreading was needed as it was a sworn translation, and sworn translations are always perfect, anyway.”
    Of course, I don’t know what really happened as I was not involved in the translation of any of those texts (or should I say “texs”) you are – quite rightly – ripping apart, but I can imagine the sort of clueless government official ordering the translation of a million words in a month and expecting just to click a few buttons and send a couple of emails and get back a perfect, multi-purpose, and consistent text without having to do anything at all.

    • Thanks for your comments Leon! It’s nice to get the thoughts of someone with a lot of experience in this field.

      You’re right that the translations aren’t official in the sense that they aren’t sworn, but I wasn’t referring to the bureaucratic definition of what constitutes an official translation in Spain. I was calling them that from the point of view of someone who comes across them on an “official” government website (which is where they are found) and would probably expect that they must be, in some way at least, endorsed by the Spanish government and therefore official, at least as per the general meaning of the word.

      And yes, it would be interesting to look at the reasons behind how these translations got into the state they’re in in terms of the client–translator relationship, although that wasn’t my aim here. I was actually just looking to make a comment about how useful they might be as a resource for legal translators and also to say something about them in relation to some aspects of approaches to terminology research that are of interest to me, one of which is whether to use civil vs. common law (sounding) terminology for translating concepts that don’t exist in the target system.

      Of course, this type of question becomes fairly straightforward when criteria have been established, and I would agree with you that in this case the translators were unlikely to have been given much guidance (that is also the conclusion I arrive at in my post too).

      But that’s partly the point.

      Let’s forget just for a moment about the circumstances in which these translations might have been done—some of which you mention and an important one that you don’t (i.e., that the translations were probably split among several translators).

      While I didn’t want to explicitly say it my post, as translators, I think that even when we’re not given any criteria (most of the time probably), we should define them ourselves. At least if we want to deliver quality. Otherwise, inconsistencies will most likely be the rule and not the exception.

      Although it’s obviously not the impression you got, it wasn’t my intention to “rip apart” the translations, at least not for the sake of it. My analysis was actually very superficial; I just picked out a few terms at random and had a look at what was done with them, just enough to illustrate my points about different translation approaches.

      I certainly didn’t want to focus on the typos as they were not really important for what I was looking at the translations for. But, as there are so many, it’s almost impossible not to mention them if you’re going to say anything at all about the texts.

      We all make typos (rather embarrassingly, I had one in the title of this post), but you wouldn’t usually expect so many to get though the net of at least a half-decent or even a not-very-thorough or bad translation process. In any case, we’re talking about the translations of legislation on a government website, which definitely makes them fair game for any type of analysis or criticism.

      Another idea for an interesting post or ten that came to mind while I was reading your comments about the perceptions and expectations of sworn/official translators and translations in Spain would be to take a look at the Spanish system of sworn translations and some of the surreal situations that it can and does lead to—in general and specifically in common and rare language combinations. It’s something I would like to know more about.

      Thanks again for your input Leon. By the way, I’m a follower of your blog and I was happy to read that one of your resolutions for 2012 was to post more often.

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