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The challenges and pitfalls of legal translation: an interview with John O’Shea

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John is an experienced legal translator with a background in law. We asked him how he ventured into translation, how he deals with the specific challenges of his specialisation and what are some of the best ways to specialise in this field.

Tell us a bit about yourself. How and where did you first learn Greek and how did you decide to venture into legal translation?

Hi, I’m originally from Ireland. I lived in Greece for 15 years and now live in London. I’m a legal translator and have been doing this job for 21 years now. I was also recently elected to the Board of FIT Europe.

I started learning Greek when I was at university, doing some research about environmental law; the idea was to compare the legal systems in two peripheries of the European Union. From early on I had an interest in comparative law, which is an essential tool for any legal translator. I used to teach law too; and law –as you know- is all about language anyway. So it was easy for me to combine my knowledge of law with my interest in language.  The perfect combination for a legal translator.

What are the main challenges and “traps” when translating legal texts, especially between two different legal systems?

I studied law in Northern Ireland which has its own legal system within the UK, but of course it is based on the common law. The Greek legal system comes from a completely different tradition, based on Roman and civil law, so it can be very hard to describe the way things are done in the Greek context through the medium of English. Lots of things don’t match up, there are often no simple equivalents for terms, ideas or concepts. Plus with Greek you have a couple of added layers of difficulty and complexity: firstly, the switch from purist Greek to the demotic form; the purist form is still very evident in legal documents even today, and secondly the Greek in Cyprus, especially in a legal setting, is completely different from that in Greece: different terms, different concepts, different ways of seeing the world, different ways of presenting information. So translating from Greek to English can be a real challenge.

You need to have a very strong grasp of the two legal systems you are translating between; and a decent understanding of comparative law. Sometimes concepts may appear to be the same at a superficial level but when you take a comparative law approach, and peel back the layers you realise that what you thought was an easy equivalent, isn’t in fact equivalent at all because the concept in each legal system has a slightly different focus. I remember a paper given at a legal translation conference in early 2017 which talked about negligence in 3 different legal systems; but in each system the losses which were being compensated were radically different. Can we really say that negligence in system A is the same as in system B when it is rectifying a different sort of wrong? As a legal translator you really need to be attuned to that sort of detail which means that in-depth research needs to be a core part of what you do.

How do you approach legal terms that have no precise equivalent in the target language?

Let’s take the example of antiparochi; it became common in Greece in the 50s, 60s and 70s as the country experienced a building boom as people flooded into the cities and anyone with land found it tempting to hand the land over to a contractor who would build an apartment building and give the landowner a couple of flats in return. There isn’t anything like it in the UK that I am aware of. If you check the legal dictionaries they will give various terms that don’t really reflect what the term is really about. That tends to be a major problem with legal dictionaries; often they provide no context for when the suggested terms should be used, and offer no clues as to how to decide between the choices available.

That’s where some knowledge of translation theory can be very useful. It suggests that there are various tools and techniques available to the translator; you can’t just rely on a dictionary. These include the use of calques, loan words or neologisms, even translator’s notes to provide an explanation about what the term means. Which approach you use will often depend on who your client is. If you know the document is intended to be read by lawyers and filed in court you need to be as precise as possible; if the client is someone buying an apartment then you can a bit more lax because their primary concern is to understand what they are agreeing to. So how you translate a term, especially one for which there is no easy equivalent, will vary depending on context. You hear a lot of suggestions about what antiparochi should be in English, but my personal favourite is land-for-flats system.  Simple, easy-to-understand, and to the point.

Sometimes concepts may appear to be the same at a superficial level but when you take a comparative law approach and peel back the layers you realise that what you thought was an easy equivalent, isn’t in fact equivalent at all because the concept in each legal system has a slightly different focus.

What would you advise colleagues who wish to specialise in legal translation? How should they go about it?

There’s a massive debate in the legal translation literature about whether someone who has studied law or someone who has studied translation makes the best legal translator. I can’t answer that definitively but from my experience someone without a background in law is at more of a disadvantage because they need to learn the law of two countries, of two legal systems. Someone with a background in law already has a foot on the ladder, and simply needs to become an expert in the other system.

Legal training equips your mind with certain tools that make it much easier to figure out things in the second legal system. I’m not saying it is impossible for someone without legal training to become a legal translator, it just requires a lot more hard work, study and effort; plus the risks of errors being made is definitely higher. That’s not to say that you will never make errors if you’ve studied law then come to translation. To err is human after all.

If you come to legal translation from a translation background, areas you really need to focus on are comparative law, to be able to distinguish between different conceptualisations of the world by different legal systems; procedural law in both systems (how the courts work, how legal proceedings are filed, and so on); the substantive areas of law you are interested in working in -say contract law or land law-; and, strange as it may sound, legal philosophy. A legal translator needs to be able to understand how a lawyer reasons, how he or she thinks, how he or she conceptualises things, put arguments, uses hypothetical reasoning and so on. A firm grounding in legal philosophy can help with that. And of course, legal philosophy in the common law and civil law is very different, so you need to read up on both.

You asked me how to go about specialising in legal translation.

If you come from a translation background, get a law degree ideally. In Greece there are no degree courses in legal translation, you’d have to go abroad to do that. The University of London will be offering one from autumn this year. Other European countries offer great degree courses in legal translation for their own languages.  University of Trieste has great expertise in the field for Italian, for example.

If doing another degree is prohibitive, read as widely as possible about the two legal systems you are interested in.

If you come from a legal background, either study translation or read widely about translation theory before diving straight into translation, and of course make sure your language skills in both languages are strong.

Continuous professional development is also vital. You can’t possibly know all areas of law but you can acquire expertise in certain areas, just like lawyers do. So regularly attending conferences on law and on legal translation is important; especially conferences on law because the law is always developing and changing and it pays to keep up to date.

What are some good resources in the Greek to English / English to Greek language combination?

This is one of the major problems with languages of limited diffusion. A major lack of resources targeted at translators. Basically there are few resources in the field. There are some books in Greek, like Prof. Krimpas’ excellent book on legal terminology, but they can be counted on one hand. A couple of the Greek legal codes have been translated into English; the quality varies a lot from below average to ok; plus lots of the key texts have never been properly translated. What you tend to end up with is everyone translating laws / codes differently, whereas with major languages like French and German, official translations of key legislation and codes are easily available.

But the major problem is a lack of decent dictionaries. I’ve already said that dictionaries won’t solve all the problems or answer all the questions but they are good starting point. The problem with GR-EN / EN-GR is that there is paucity of good legal dictionaries. There are in fact quite a few legal dictionaries in that combination, they just tend to be problematic: mere word lists in effect, or a massive choice of potential things to choose from, but no explanation of how to differentiate between them.  In other languages like French, academics or even individual translators have prepared legal dictionaries designed to overcome those problems. In Greece, we haven’t quite got to that stage.

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