Plain English ATO style and the cut and shuffle of legal translations

Meandering about the Web the other day, I stumbled across this pearl of surrealness from the Australian Tax Office (ATO):

For the purposes of making a declaration under this Subdivision, the Commissioner may:

(a) treat a particular event that actually happened as not having happened; and

(b) treat a particular event that did not actually happen as having happened and, if appropriate, treat the event as:

(i) having happened at a particular time; and

(ii) having involved particular action by a particular entity; and

(c) treat a particular event that actually happened as:

(i) having happened at a time different from the time it actually happened; or

(ii) having involved particular action by a particular entity (whether or not the event actually involved any action by that entity).

Source: ATO, A New Tax System (Goods and Services Tax) Act 1999

It won second place in the 2005 Plain English Campaign Golden Bull awards (see here for the winner and more snippets of some not-so-plain tax English). However, to me at least, the language seems pretty clear. It’s the intent to reorder the universe that baffles. Not something you’d expect to find in a public servant’s job description.

According to the above-cited and aptly titled article Tax Simplification Is Not a Simple Issue, complex language results from a complex tax system. You can try to simplify a tax system, but you will face a trade-off between simplicity and having a good system. “The best tax system is unlikely to be the simplest.” People say something similar about legal systems, i.e., that they are inherently complex and require complex language. But does the language really have to be complex?

One-syllable dog’s breakfast

The article cites how Lloyd George, during his time as Chancellor of the Exchequer (1908-1915), asked for a paper on a tax submitted to him be rewritten in one-syllable words to make it comprehensible. Apparently, though, the rewritten version was just as complicated and even harder to understand. Maybe the instructions were too strict or misguided (one-syllable words vs. simple language), but it does suggest that simplicity may escape us when the content is complex.

However, the people’s desire to understand the laws that govern them remains, since quite some time ago it appears. Way back in 1792, long before the plain English movement, Jeremy Bentham advised writing law books with “sentences of moderate length, such as men use in common conversation, and such as the laws are written in France, with no more words than necessary” (from the same article quoted above).

Legal translations should be understandable and usable

Translators don’t usually get to simplify the content of a legal system or even the documents they translate, but we can make our translations understandable and usable, which is, after all, what clients want on most occasions: documents they or their clients can understand and use. Even for legal translations.

You can fall into the trap of paying too much respect to a legal text because of its formality. But the same process applies as when translating anything. You have to understand the text, make it your own (i.e., really understand it) and then put it together in a form that’s digestible in the target language, which may involve cutting (and joining) sentences, shuffling clauses and explaining concepts.

Sometimes a client—or a client in particular—may require a literal, warts (i.e., errors) and all translation of a legal document. But this is surely the exception rather than the rule, and I would only indulge in this type of faithfulness when instructed to.

Further reading

James, S. (2007) Tax Simplification is not a Simple Issue: The Reasons for Difficulty and a Possible Strategy, Discussion Papers in Management. University of Exeter. Available at:

Written by Rob

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

9 comments to “Plain English ATO style and the cut and shuffle of legal translations”
  1. I agree, Béatrice, which is more or less what I was trying to say above. It’s the content that’s surreal; the English is quite straightforward. The people drafting this probably did as well as they could. As the article cited above points out, the fault probably lies with the law makers.

  2. Pingback: Weekly favorites (Apr 22-28) | Adventures in Freelance Translation

  3. Hello

    I think that the lawmakers here have said exactly what they wanted to say. It’s tax law after all.

    For example, a friend does me a favor that should have cost me £50 so I buy him a meal

    For the taxman, my friend had undeclared income which is (b)

    treat a particular event that did not actually happen as having happened and, if appropriate, treat the event as:

    When was he paid though?

    In the restaurant of course as defined by i) having happened at a particular time;

    As for me, I get done for illegal employment but that’s another story.

  4. Yes, I’m sure they did say what they meant. I think your comment and example actually hit on why (or at least got me thinking about why) this fragment came up on the plain-English radar in the first place (being the prize winner that it is).

    Maybe it’s just a case of the drafter translating the idea of the law a little too literally. As you say, it is tax law, so it might have been better to use standard accounting terminology and just talk about recognising or not expenses in different periods according to different conditions. Who knows? Maybe it was actually an attempt to get away from specialist terminology.

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