I first came across this idea in this blog post by Lloyd Bingham about a talk on legal translation by Juliette Scott. By the sounds of it, I missed a great talk that covered a lot of interesting ground. However, the one thing that really jumped out at me was point 10 of Juliette’s 12-step plan for professionalising legal translation:
Change terminology (from resource/freelancer to practitioner/professional)
This idea struck a chord with me. I think it’s at the very heart of what legal translation and our approach to it should be. We need to move away from being “resource-users”. We need to aim to be practitioners.
In any case, and call me misguided if you will, it fits in with the way I’ve always tried to approach my work.
What does it mean to be a practitioner?
We can see from Juliette’s point that being a practitioner is about changing terminology. But more importantly, it’s about being willing and able to change it. The “willing” coming from confidence and “able” from skills and experience. It’s about applying your skills and knowledge with confidence, making your own judgment and not simply deferring to external authorities or sources.
Because given the changing and differing natures of the legal systems, there really aren’t any external authorities who can tell us exactly the way things should be translated. We are the interface. It’s our job to work out how best to translate terms and documents for different purposes. While, of course, paying attention to and working with legal experts on both sides of the legal-system divide.
So given that underlying philosophy, being a practitioner is obviously not just about terminology. It’s also about style, register and structure. Indeed, all areas of translation.
Thus, we have the practitioner’s approach versus the resource-user’s or the non-practitioner’s approach.
What being a resource-user or non-practitioner looks like
Indeed, the non-practitioner is normally just a resource-user. It’s when you bounce from bilingual resource to bilingual resource. You look for outside confirmation and always defer to other sources and authorities — dictionaries, Internet sources and other translators. You never really get to the bottom of the matter in your own head and never make the document you’re translating yours, let alone the field you translate in.
I’m not trying to define what a bad translator looks like. Rather, I think being a non-practitioner is more of an attitude we can all be guilty of on occasions. It is, actually, the logical starting point. But we should, quite quickly even, move on to become practitioners.
Better for you and your clients
To become a truly professional translator, I think we have to turn into practitioners at some stage. For our sake but also for our client’s, who get a lot more for their money from practitioners.
When we work as practitioners, we have a unique position. If we do our work properly — fully investigating terms and document types in both legal systems and not being afraid to come up with new and more appropriate solutions, we can offer the client insights they wouldn’t otherwise get, even and especially the field experts among them. In my case, mainly Spanish but also English lawyers.
You see, if we just stand back and always defer to external authorities and other people’s resources (who, in any case and qualifications aside, are just translators of some kind), we’re not helping our clients very much. At least not when it most matters. I.e., for that one tricky-to-render term in the document that will throw even an expert reader. Either because our translation of this term — inappropriate but the best we could find without getting our hands dirty — misleads (the reader thinks of something else) or confuses (they don’t understand it at all).
Our particular expertise, our insight, is understanding the interface between the language and terminology of the two legal systems and how best to negotiate the divide according to the context and purpose of a particular document.
For instance, sometimes this expertise is knowing how and when to tone down the register to make something more understandable. On other occasions, it involves knowing when to explain and add in extra information because all possible equivalents are inaccurate for the context.
With the attitude of a practitioner, we really do have something to offer clients. We provide them with advice on how legal terms and documents should be rendered in the translation according to what they want to do with the document or text.
Not just legal translation
Of course, everything I’m saying here is applicable to any translator specialising in some way — not just in terms of field. It’s about bringing specialised knowledge and practice to the table and applying it.
And, as well as helping the client by actually providing them with a truly professional service, we also help ourselves. Because it makes things a lot easier when you work as a practitioner, i.e., when you really try to get to the bottom of your subject matter or document type and make your own decisions about how things should be translated. Apart from producing better translations, you have no problem in justifying your decisions. You can even explain to a client upfront what type of decisions you will take and what your translation will look like.
This turns everything around. As a practitioner you get to the bottom of understanding your field (little by little, over time) and whatever document you work on (the day-to-day). You translate according to easily definable and justifiable criteria. The client gets a service worth coming back for and you get more job satisfaction.