Five things your translator should know when translating legislation into English

Translating the legislation or regulations of a country, company or university into English requires certain skills and know-how. This post lists five things your translator should know when translating legislation into English.

1. How to apply English drafting conventions

Conventions on headings, numbering, referencing and capitalisation differ from one legal language to another. For instance, while Spanish uses ordinals to number sections in legislation, English uses cardinals. Thus, tercero should be changed to “3” in translation.

This amounts to an extra step when translating legislation: the translator must translate the form of the provisions (the conventions) as well as the provisions themselves.

To be able to do this, your translator must be familiar with English legislation and drafting guidelines.

What guidelines should they follow? There are many to choose from. But any current ones from a common-law jurisdiction should do.

For instance, I use the following style guides from Australia and the UK:

  • Australian Government. Office of Parliamentary Counsel. (2013) Plain English Manual. Available in PDF here
  • UK Government. Office of the Parliamentary Counsel. (2020) Drafting Guidance. Available in PDF here

2. How to use legal English

Spanish and English use different verbs and tenses for different jobs in legal language.

For example, while Spanish can use the future tense to express obligation, English uses “must” or the construction “are/is to”. Legal English has traditionally used “shall” for obligation. However, modern style guides — like the two mentioned above — advise against using “shall” in legislation as it can be misunderstood.

These are the types of things your translator needs to be aware of. They need to know modern legal English inside out and how to translate Spanish verbs and tenses into those used in English legislation. They shouldn’t blindly translate legal verbs and tenses from Spanish.

3. When to use the second person and how to write more directly

English — even formal, legal English — is more direct than Spanish. Legal English can even use the second person to speak directly to the reader. It does this by using imperative statements (e.g. “Do not walk on the grass”) and the pronoun “you”. This is typical in company policies and regulations.

When the type of document requires it, your translator must know how to — and be willing to — translate third person, passive and indirect constructions into a more direct style to make the legislation read as it should in English.

4. When to get rid of signposts and context markers

English gives less context than Spanish. A famous example of this is the London Underground warning to “mind the gap”. Madrid Metro’s equivalent message is longer and gives more context:

 Atención: estación en curva. Al salir, tengan cuidado para no introducir el pie entre coche y andén (Caution: station on a curve. As you exit, be careful not to place your foot between the train and the platform)

Legal English, too, provides less context.

Your translator isn’t going to want to change the information given in a piece of legislation. But they should get rid of redundancies or signposts that current drafting guidelines advise against using in English legislation.

This means getting rid of things like “of this code/law” and “the provisions of” when they add nothing. It may also mean slashing long headings to one word.

5. How to bridge the civil/common-law divide

Your translator needs to be careful when translating Spanish legal terms that don’t exist in common-law English. They must use terms English-speaking readers will understand without losing any nuance.

Sometimes exact English translations of Spanish terms exist in the EU or English-speaking mixed civil-and-common-law systems (e.g. Louisiana, Scotland and South Africa). But the translator may not want to use these terms if common-law audiences, even legally trained ones, might not know them.

The translator has a number of strategies they can use. But oftentimes it’s best to use common-law terms to describe the unique Spanish term. If non-common-law terms must be used — and sometimes they are needed as they are more accurate — the translator must make sure a common-law reader will understand them.

Need some help?

If you have any questions about the translation of legislation, please get in touch.

To read more about the dilemmas translators face when translating legislation, please see this post.

Written by Rob Lunn

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

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