A plain Spanish campaign in Woolf’s clothing?

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A Spanish government committee recently made a series of recommendations to legal bodies and practitioners—including the Spanish Bar Association, the Public Prosecutor’s Office and universities—for making legal language clearer and more accessible.

According to this article (in Spanish), the use of long paragraphs, archaic expressions, Latinisms and ambiguous references and the overuse of subordinate clauses and passive and gerund constructions were identified as common errors (in terms of clarity, I suppose) in legal Spanish. All of which, incidentally, have also been identified as characteristics of legal English (see Tiersma on this page for a start).

Much like in the Woolf reforms in England and Wales, which saw the adoption of procedural rules written in plain English (plainer English, anyway), the understandability of legal language is seen by the authors of the Spanish report as an important factor in how accessible the law is to the people.

Spain’s Minister for Justice, Francisco Caamaño, goes so far as to say that administrators that hide behind words and subordinate clauses are only hurting themselves as justice that can’t be understood is not justice at all.

Apparently, and logically, to make the law accessible, you have to make it understandable. The counterargument is that the complexity of the law can only be reflected in complex language; as in any technical sphere, technical language is required to express the ideas efficiently.

So, do legal practitioners hide behind their words? Is there a “conspiracy of gobbledygook”, as Tiersma refers to it? The comments to the article cited above show the typical range of opinions on the matter.

I have to admit, part of the fun of working as a legal translator—along with deciphering the abstractness that is typical of some Spanish legal documents—is aptly replicating legal English, but what parts of this distinct code are necessary?

Most of the archaisms and formulaic language that litter legal documents, in both Spanish and English, are probably unnecessary.  All the “in witness whereof”, “como mejor proceda en derecho” and “whereas” could quite easily be done away with or replaced with everyday language, and you wouldn’t lose very much in terms of meaning.

There is, of course, more to legal language than just archaisms, but I’m not sure that getting rid of all the other features is feasible.

Long sentences and paragraphs can be broken up with more—and better—punctuation. The flipside is that the text will probably be longer, but that’s a small price to pay for increased understandability. At the very least, people will be turned off less quickly when they first see the text.

In fact, legislation in both Spain and England is already, generally, set out with a high degree of structure (e.g., headings, subordinate clauses as bullet points), and this does make it more easily digestible. However, when you’re dealing with complex issues, it’s still pretty dense. Complex ideas and relationships are probably always going to seem complicated, especially to the uninitiated.

As for the gerunds, they are not such a problem in English, but their overuse can cause confusion in subordinate clauses in Spanish as it’s sometimes quite difficult to work out what the subject might be without the usually clues of gender and number that you get with other verb forms.

Passives, however, in both legal Spanish and English, seem to do a useful job in creating a neutral and authoritative tone that sits well with legal documents; they’re often more economical too. They can be overused though and, among other things, make the writing or message too abstract, which seems to happen quite often in legal Spanish. There’s generally a far more academic and learned feel to legal Spanish than legal English. It’s actually nearly comforting when you get used to it, but it’s probably not the best style in terms of clarity and accessibility.

Then there’s the technical vocabulary. It can be made more transparent (as has occurred to some extent with the CPR reforms of civil procedure language in England and Wales), and archaic words can be replaced by everyday synonyms, but there will always be a need for specialised lexis as naming concepts and ideas is a practical and necessary evil. This is increasingly so the greater the complexity.

So, are the lives of Spanish legal translators about to get a whole lot easier with this news?

Probably not. The truth is, though, the most difficult part of legal translation is not necessarily the type of language used per se, which is just a case of register, style and lexis—something that is not so difficult to acquire with experience and/or the right training.

The tricky bit is the law, which is usually complex, changeable and not very uniform from one place to another (and even within the same place sometimes!), and translators, to a certain extent at least, are always going to need specialised knowledge of the two legal systems in question in order to deliver quality legal translations.

Legal translation is different from other types of translation in this respect. Physics is cold hard science, whether you speak Russian, Spanish or English; the languages are different but the concepts are the same. In the field of law though, the languages and the concepts are different, which is what make legal translation both interesting and a challenge.

Further reading

López, E. (2011) ‘Lenguage judicial’ 25 Sept. La Razón Available at: http://www.larazon.es/noticia/9320-lenguaje-judicial (Accessed: 27/09/11)

‘Los expertos se conjuran para hacer más comprensible el lenguaje jurídico’ 20 Sept. (2011) Heraldo.es Available at: http://www.heraldo.es/noticias/nacional/los_expertos_conjuran_para_hacer_mas_comprensible_lenguaje_juridico.html (Accessed: 27/09/11)

Tiersma, P. (no date) Language and Law.ord Available at: http://www.languageandlaw.org/ (Accessed: 27/09/11)

Written by Rob

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

One comment to “A plain Spanish campaign in Woolf’s clothing?”
  1. Pingback: Content and form: Two books on the law for legal translators - Legally Yours from Spain

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