A FEW THOUGHTS ON QUALITY IN LEGAL TRANSLATION
Poor or inadequate legal translations can have dire consequences on the legal, financial and personal relations of individuals, companies and legal entities, lead to doubts regarding the rights and obligations of the parties and can often result in great financial losses. The expectations of quality in this field are high, certainly higher than in other translation fields, for the sake of legal certainty and for the avoidance of these adverse consequences.
Legal translation: A specialised sector
The challenge of terminology
Furthermore, the terminology used should cover the same semantic areas. This is often challenging, because two systems of law are almost never mirror images of each other. We have referred to this problem in detail here.
“An appropriate translation”
One cannot help but wonder if these two elements, the informational equivalence of the communicated message and the correct or semantically equivalent terminology are enough to ensure quality in legal translations.
Unfortunately, the answer is no. The legal translator needs, above everything else, to deliver an appropriate translation. The next question that comes to mind, of course, is “appropriate for what?” The answer varies depending on the situation where the translated text will be used. For example when the end reader of a legal translation is a layman with no legal knowledge, who simply wants to understand the content of the legal document, the legal translator will use different methods and techniques and will maybe decide to use different terminology than in the case of a legal document that the client wants translated only for information purposes of his foreign lawyer, but is not going to be submitted to court, or in the case of a legal document that the client wants translated in order to be used in court proceedings. A more informal tone and style of language could be adopted in the first and in the second case, but certainly not in the last.
Who is the target audience?
It is clear, however, that the translator cannot possibly adapt his writing style and language if he doesn’t know the target audience of the translated text. This can happen in two different ways: either the client didn’t provide the translator with more information about why he needs the translated text, or there was no direct communication between the client and the translator, because the job was outsourced to the translator via a translation agency or another colleague and the NDAs signed prohibit such communication.
The book provides a useful collection of essays by translation scholars and experts with a particular concern for the challenges of courtroom discourse when the parties not only use different languages, but operate from different cultural and legal traditions.
The facts of the case, as given by Hammond, are as follows: In issue 2, 1987 of TextconText, Justa Holz Mänttäri, a Finnish translation professor, reported on a Swiss court case where the client was not satisfied with the quality of the delivered translation and thus refused to pay the translator. The problem according to the client was that the “translation did not resemble the source text closely enough”. The translator decided to sue her customer for payment, leaving it up to the court to decide whether or not the translation provided the quality the customer needed.
In order to answer this very difficult question the court asked the help of an expert, who in turn asked for the customer’s product specifications. According to the court, the quality of the translation could only be judged by comparison with the specifications set for it. The real question here was whether the text produced would serve its purpose. The court concluded that a translation is good if the target text does the job it was ordered to do, just like any other product. In this case, and unfortunately in many cases where a translation is asked from a translation professional, there weren’t any product specifications. Additionally, the source text could not serve as a product specification, as it was written for an entirely different purpose.
Translation briefs in legal translation
Where and what a translated text is going to be used for has much more value in creating the target text, than the original text itself, which was created for a different audience, a different culture and with the purpose of meeting different needs.
According to Hammond, “purpose is just one of many components of the knowledge essential for a translator to translate well, including the place and time, the occasion of the translation, and its target audience”. He calls all of these factors the situation of the translation and stresses how essential they are for the creation of a meaningful and helpful translation brief.
What should a translation brief include?
More specifically, according to Holz Mänttäri as cited by Hammond, product specifications or translation briefs should clarify the following points:
- the situation where the target text will be used
- the content to be communicated
- the strategies that are appropriate for communicating messages in the target culture
- the type of media to be used (text, sound, graphics)
- the resources that are already available (source texts, documentation, glossaries, previous translations)
- the budget
- the delivery deadline or deadlines
- the outside suppliers which may be called in
Including the above information in the translation brief will not only guide the translator in his decision-making process, so that he can make sure that the translated text meets the client’s specific needs, but it will also help the client, in cooperation with the translator, to better define and crystallise those needs. What is equally important is that a translation brief will provide the client with the only suitable means to later judge the quality of the translated text.
Some final thoughts
For the sake of translation quality, therefore, clients need to make the time and effort to draft an appropriate translation brief together with their translators, including the above-mentioned elements. When direct client-translator communication is not possible, it is equally important for the person who is in direct contact with the client to create with him a detailed translation brief, in order to design a target text that meets the client’s needs, and to accurately pass on this information to the translator.
Legal texts are “culture-specific texts” for which a word-for-word translation is not possible. In order for the legal translator to create an appropriate text for the target culture with the same informational content and the correct terminology, he needs certain indications and instructions from the client. Those indications will help him decide on the appropriate techniques and methods for the translation and will guide him in his decision-making process. Quality in legal translations can therefore be achieved only with close cooperation of the client and the translator, who is offering his advice and expertise and is acting as an intercultural consultant.
By Eva Angelopoulou
Eva specialises in translating legal documents from English and German into Greek. She has a Master’s in Civil Procedure and another in Specialised Translation. She worked as a lawyer in Greece for 7 years and over the last 4 years has been bringing her specialist knowledge to bear in the translation sector. She is a member of the Panhellenic Association of Translators and a SDL-certified translator. In addition to loving what she does, she also likes to travel. She has lived in Greece, Germany and Belgium, and now lives in Austria.