Tag: Legal Dictionaries

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


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.


Tools of the legal translator’s trade, a new blog by me published today on the IALS Legal Translation hub looking at the various tools legal translators use in their profession.  Click here to read more:

Tools of the legal translator’s trade

Legal dictionaries, legal lexicography and legal translation

Over the years academics in the field of legal translation such as Marta Chroma and Coen Van Laer have been highly vocal about the need for good quality legal dictionaries to assist legal translators in their task. Of course, legal dictionaries can’t provide all the answers but are still an essential tool.

I’ve written extensively about the quality of Greek-English legal dictionaries in the past, indicating that the quality of these essential tools for getting legal translations done is affected by a great many factors. Sadly, existing dictionaries out there tend to score very poorly when judged by their fitness for purpose. Most are mere word lists and lack the sort of information that legal translators need to navigate the difficult seas from source to target language, culture and legal system. That is especially true for the Greek-English language combination.

Academic articles are regularly published on legal lexicography but a relatively new, comprehensive book on the subject is a welcome addition. Prof. Łucja Biel, University of Warsaw, recently published a review of Legal Lexicography. A Comparative Perspective. Law, Language and Communication which was published in 2014 by Ashgate Press and edited by Máirtín Mac Aodha. She said, “Definitely, it is a must-read for legal translation and legal language researchers”. With that in mind, I’ve ordered a copy.

Legal lexicography, legal dictionaries and legal translation

Legal Lexicography. A Comparative Perspective. Law, Language and Communication

Overview of the book

Until the book arrives, let’s take a quick look at Prof. Biel’s review and see what her overview can tell us about state of play.

Firstly, legal lexicography is a complicated field with many aspects, encompassing terminology and translation. It also covers both mono- and bi-lingual dictionaries, as well as printed and online versions of these language resources. It’s a field where technology is important and thankfully technology is starting to play an ever increasing role. Two chapters of the book (by Sandrini and Nielsen) look at the importance of shifting towards digital solutions and how this could improve the quality of legal dictionaries. Prof. Biel concurs, arguing that, “Digital technology makes it possible to better structure masses of data and to retrieve information adapted to user needs (communicative and cognitive functions) as regards its content and quantity”. In my older review of GR-EN legal dictionaries, the dictionary which was also available in electronic format also scored highest.

Secondly, the way in which a legal dictionary is prepared, decisions about the sort of dictionary it will be, and questions of the  intended audience (lawyers? judges? translators? the public?) all affect the quality of the final dictionary and determine how the dictionary should be judged and its fitness for purpose.

Thirdly, a point I’ve raised before about the need for GR-EN legal dictionaries to be more descriptive is also raised by Coen Van Laer in his chapter in the book. He argues that bilingual legal dictionaries for translators could be improved by including an optimal amount of encyclopaedic information. Van Laer argues that dictionaries should assess the degree of equivalence between concepts in the source and target language; to do that, he stresses, entries should include source and target legislative definitions to allow for their comparison, especially for core and incongruous concepts. Prof. Biel makes the following comments on this point, “Indisputably, this solution would be of valuable help to translators; however, I have doubts as to its feasibility due to the following constraints: legal systems differ in their reliance on legislative definitions; there are not that many terms that have legislative definitions; legislative definitions of a term may differ across statutes and branches of law and, finally, in the case of languages which are used in various jurisdictions, how many definitions do we place in an entry …? It should be admitted though that this solution offers an ideal to strive towards.”

To sum up, the book appears to offer an extensive overview of the field of legal lexicography, and its importance in legal translation. It will certainly make for interesting reading when it arrives.

The University of the Aegean’s Department of Information & Communication Systems Engineering has recently released a GR-EN / EN-GR glossary of e-Government terms.

To view it click here: http://icsdweb.aegean.gr/project/lexiko/

“Many non-experienced translators think that a good legal dictionary is enough to do the job. They do not realise that even the best dictionary does not contain all the terms they are going to encounter in the course of translation. And even lexicographers can make mistakes. Consulting a dictionary and finding some kind of equivalent does not mean that translators find what they are looking for.”

Aleksandra Matulewska, Lingua Legis in Translation, Peter Lang Press, 2007

As mentioned in a recent post, glossaries can be useful aids in legal translation and in legal interpretation. As the number of migrants/refugees entering Greece and other European countries increases, could initiatives similar to the Canadian multilingual glossary outlined below provide a replicable model for improving the quality of legal translation and court interpreting?Continue Reading..

This book review of “Legal Translation and the Dictionary” is taken from academia.edu. Although referring to Czech legal translation it raises many interesting issues for legal translation in general
Continue Reading..

Legal dictionaries are a big part of what legal translators do. Legal dictionaries have usually been problematic in various ways. Perhaps technology holds the key for better legal dictionaries in the future:

Continue Reading..


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