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By Graham Perra
March 3, 2022

Six tips to create a high-quality legal translation

When it comes to highly specialized fields such as medicine, engineering, finance or law, translation has proven to be challenging. It’s no secret that translators who want to work in these fields have to not only master their working languages in all their subtleties, but also gain deep knowledge of the subjects they translate. However, what sets legal translation apart from other areas of specialization is that legal translators aren’t just language specialists, they’re also jurilinguists insofar as their editorial choices, whether terminological, syntactical or stylistic in nature, have legal implications. For that reason, they always have to keep in mind that their work will be interpreted with a view to establishing binding standards. According to David Mellinkoff, “[t]he law is a profession of words,”[1] meaning that language cannot be dissociated from the law, which exists only if it is communicated. With that in mind, this article explains some of the decisions you have to make when translating a legal document.

1.     Determine the translation’s purpose: documentary translation vs. instrumental translation

The first thing to consider when starting a legal translation project is its purpose: Will it simply inform the reader of the content of the original document or will it be used as a new legal instrument with legal implications? Documentary translations are official documents, such as acts of civil status or divorce judgments, or even stenographer’s notes. In such cases, the translation’s sole purpose is to describe the content of the original document. There is no need to seek equivalence between the legal system referred to in the original document and that which applies to the reader. On the contrary, the legal concepts specific to the country of the source text should be maintained, even if it means translating them literally using terms pulled from the target language’s dictionaries, not translating them at all and adding a footnote in the target text, or simply paraphrasing the concepts. When it comes to translating documents governed by common law from English to French, legal translators in Quebec have the francized common law at their disposal, a legal language for which numerous and extensive terminological resources exist.

As for documents that will serve as new legal instruments, translators need to do extensive research to establish functional equivalency between the legal system governing the original document and that which will apply to the translation. We explain how to do this below.

2.     Establish terminological equivalence

“Traduire c’est choisir.” [Translating is choosing.] This saying first appeared in an article by Pierre‑François Caillé published in 1967 in the international translation journal Babel, and is widely quoted in schools of translation. In any type of translation, there are certainly a number of stylistic choices that are left to the translator’s creativity. In a legal context, however, many of these choices are determined by the vocabulary that the law imposes on the translator. First, it is important to identify the legal framework governing the original document and then to determine the laws applicable to the translated document. Unlike in other areas of specialization, specialized dictionaries and encyclopedias are not a legal translator’s primary source of terminology—legislation is. For example, when translating a contract drafted in English in the United States into French for use in Quebec, where it will be governed by civil law, it may be useful to consult U.S. legal dictionaries or the applicable laws, if any, for reference in order to fully understand the concept to be translated. As regards the target language, the translator should refer in particular to Book Five of the Civil Code of Québec, which contains the correct terminology to describe the obligations governing the contract. That being said, a contract may contain concepts defined in other legislation, such as the Business Corporations Act or the Income Tax Act. That’s why it’s important to be attentive. This point cannot be stressed enough: never cut corners in research!

3.     Ensure consistency in terminology

Once you’ve established a terminological equivalence, you should note the term in a glossary that includes the Act and section or article to which the term refers, or any other relevant source, if any, as well as explanatory notes on the context. Maintaining consistency is very important: one concept = one term. English teachers will often tell you to use synonyms and avoid repetition, but this doesn’t apply in a legal context. Even if the source text contains terminology inconsistencies, a good translator will strive for consistency in the translation and point out the issue to the client. In these cases, the translator’s careful analysis may even help the client improve the source text. Furthermore, if you’re translating from English to French, it’s possible to eliminate many of the redundancies found in set legal expressions in English. Examples of this abound: “to indemnify and hold harmless” (indemnifier), “the parties covenant and agree to” (les parties s’engagent à), “amounts due and payable” (sommes exigibles), etc. Thus, although French is usually considered to be wordier than English, in many cases, a French legal translation will be more concise than the original English text.

4.     Pay attention to the smallest details

You can never be too meticulous in legal translation, even when choosing ordinary words, which also have legal implications. This is particularly true when describing an obligation. For example, the word “shall” is commonly used in legal texts to describe an obligation, but many authorities and experts, including the Canadian Department of Justice, recommend against it. For one thing, this word is rarely used in modern English outside of legal contexts and gives the text a legalistic tone. Your goal should not be to write legalese, but to write plainly and clearly. On top of that, the meaning of “shall” can be ambiguous, to the point that there have been lawsuits over what “shall” means. For that reason, experts recommend using “must” for obligations and “must not” for prohibitions (rather than “shall not” or the equally ambiguous “may not”). This is just one example of the complexities of plain language in the legal realm.

5.     Last but not least, revise

Once the time-consuming step of research and translation is complete, another one begins: revision. The revision step consists in having a reviser compare the source text and the translation sentence by sentence to verify the accuracy of the meaning, the terminology (and terminology sources), the grammar and the readability of the document.

6.     Turn to professionals

Do you have any legal documents to be translated? When it comes to your rights and obligations, or those of others, the stakes are high. The translation of such writings should never be taken lightly. That’s why it’s advisable to entrust this task to specialized translators, i.e. professionals with training or experience in this particular area of translation who place the utmost importance on thoroughness and compliance with ethical standards. Having your legal documents translated is a vital step in furthering your business projects both in Canada and abroad, and OXO’s legal translators are here to help.

[1] Tellier-Marcil, Arnaud. (2016). La rédaction en droit des affaires – Principes fondamentaux et recommandations pratiques. Montréal, Éditions Yvon-Blais, p. 17

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