Content and form: Two books on the law for legal translators

Target system: Form?


Glanville Williams: Learning the Law is a useful book for legal translators. Although it’s written mainly for people considering legal careers and is mainly about studying law, it provides a good introduction to the legal system of England and Wales. What I’m finding particularly interesting though (I’m only a little way into it), is the language it exposes to you.

In this case—for an into-English legal translator reading the book—form is as or more important than content. While we need to have a firm grounding in our target legal system, the finer details are not always so important and can get filled in as needed. What we want to know is how to say it: which preposition goes with which verb and so on. And that is one thing this book is good for.

As well as paying specific attention to linguistic aspects (such as prepositions in the fragment below) and terminology, it exposes you to legal language and register in general, basically, how the law is talked about by people working in it, which is always helpful for those of us who translate it.

Prepositions have come to be used rather sloppily in criminal matters. In good usage, one is charged, tired, convicted, acquitted, or sentenced on (or upon) an indictment or count or charge. One is indicted on a charge of theft (or some other offence) or on two counts of theft. One is indicted or tried for theft, and the indictment/count/information/charge is for theft. (An information is a document making criminal charge before magistrates.) We also speak of a count or charge of theft. One pleads guilty (or no guilty) to a count or charge or indictment of theft, or to theft. One is acquitted or convicted (or found guilty) of theft. (p. 14)

This kind of information is priceless. And it’s not always easy to find. While there are many resources on the Internet talking about things, including legal systems and the law, the information is often so toned down that it removes some of the linguist aspects that translators are precisely interested in. Please note, when it comes to applying this type of language to translations, I’m not talking about making things complicated; just getting it right as far as register goes.

Source system: Content?

On the other hand, for your source language, at first glance at least, it’s content that seems to be more important. In my case, as an out-of-Spanish translator, one book that I find useful is Elana Merino-Blanco’s Spanish Law and Legal System. It’s an introduction to the law in Spain, although it provides enough detail to make it a useful reference book, and I do turn to it on occasions when translating. It gives you the context that the source text often doesn’t and helps fill in the gaps.Spanish_Law_and_Legal_System

This book goes into more detail than Learning the Law (after all, it’s solely about the legal system; not also about studying law). It starts with the origins of the Spanish legal system and covers all the main areas of law. As it’s written in English, it’s interesting to see how the author translates Spanish terms. Her solutions may even serve as inspiration for translations in other contexts. However, the purpose of the book should be kept in mind. As the aim is to describe the Spanish legal system, the author has the luxury of being able to provide any amount of explanation she feels necessary for terms that don’t even have to be translated. We obviously don’t always have so much leeway with other types of translations, and thus her solutions may not be so useful in other scenarios.

Content in the form

Of course, both content and form are important in both your source and target systems. If you don’t know how linguistic features like prepositions are used in your source language and whether such use varies from general to legal registers, how are you going to understand the source text? Likewise, without having a good content knowledge of you target system, how are you going to know if a likely equivalent for a source term that you know back to front is actually a safe and good equivalent in the target legal language for the context in question?

The line does blur a bit, though. It can be hard to say exactly where form ends and content starts. For instance, when you read or, especially, listen to legal practitioners talking about their native legal systems, the approach they take gives you a lot of useful information about those legal systems. That’s form; but it’s also content because the speaker or writer’s approach derives, to some degree, from the content.

Ad hoc vs. abstract

In my experience, English law lectures, for instance, or any type of resource on English law for that matter, cut straight to the chase and get immediately into specific concepts, legislation, judgments, effects and practice. Generalisations and reflections are made along the way, but sometimes you can be left wondering what bit fits in where. A question to which there is often no definite answer anyway as there is not always an overarching framework. It can all seem a little ad hoc, which might be one way of summing up English law.

Spanish law lectures and resources, however, tend to start from a theoretical framework. The structure and the broader, more abstract concepts are set out before you move into the details, which are generally still quite abstract. You get the overall theoretical picture drawn out very nicely, but you often lose sight of what happens in practice; equal weight seems to be given to the entire range of elements, solutions and eventualities, regardless of how common they may be in practice.

Just recognising these approaches helps you when translating. In the case of Spanish, the theoretical, structured and abstract approach permeates through to many Spanish legal documents. The tendency is toward the abstract and the use of abstract language. This doesn’t happen so much in English, which can be just as confusing for other reasons, like the ad hoc naming of concepts.

In Spanish, more often than not, things have the names they do based on some trace of etymological logic. The term itself often tells you something about the concept it represents. In contrast, legal English is full of terms that don’t give any hints to meaning (e.g., “quistclose trust”), and no amount of linguistic deduction will help you to know what is meant. This is probably more content that form, but it’s form in the sense that it’s a recurring feature of legal English. Of course, as noted in this post, a lot of the features that make legal English complex are also found in legal Spanish (long paragraphs, archaic expressions, Latinisms, etc.).

Common thread

The point is, the person who wrote the contract or judgment you’re struggling away with got the same education and was trained under the same system as the person who wrote the book you’re reading or gave the law lecture you sat through (if it’s in the same language—Merino-Blanco’s book is not a good example in this case), and it shows through in the language used. This is not exclusively about content; it’s also a matter of approach and register. And sometimes that’s where the trick lies to unravelling an endlessly long sentence full of gerunds, strings of nouns and mazes of subordinate clauses, all tending toward the abstract, without a likely subject in sight.

Written by Rob

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

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