Category: Legal Translation Quotes

“Legal translation has been regarded as the ‘ultimate linguistic challenge’, ‘combining the inventiveness of literary translation with the terminological precision of technical translation’ … It is marked by a strong conflict between accuracy and naturalness. …  This conflict is widespread in all types of translation; however it is escalated in legal translation. Accuracy is of primary importance in legal translation and takes precedence over stylistic considerations.”


Lucja Biel, Lost in the Eurofog: The textual fit of translated law, Peter Lang Editions (2014), p.  49

Translated law, legal translation and textual fit 

“… legal terms  tend to be incongruous, the degree of incongruity depending on the affinity between the systems and languages… The differences are greater between the common law system and the civil law system … than between two civil law systems … Some areas of law are more prone to globalisation and a harmonisation of concepts, for example, business law tenders to show higher affinity between legal systems than criminal law, subject to the culture-specific axiological and moral assessment of what is socially unacceptable and punishable. The incongruity is one of the major challenges in legal translation: it is found not only at the level of terms but more importantly at the level of concept systems, which affects how conceptual networks and conceptual fields are organised…. In legal translation it is unavoidable for recipients to access the unfamiliar (source language concepts and knowledge structures) through the familiar (target source language concepts and knowledge structures) by establishing epistemic correspondence between incongruous structures.”


Lucja Biel, Lost in the Eurofog: The textual fit of translated law, Peter Lang Editions (2014), p.  50




“Experts Talk About Legal Translation” is a series of interesting quotes from some of the world’s leading academics and writers from the field of legal translation. The series highlights some of the complexities and difficulties involved in legal translation and seeks to raise awareness among clients, translators and the general public about legal translation which is proving to be one of the fast-growing, most interesting segments of the translation market.


“Because of the system-bound nature of legal terms, full equivalence between terms from two legal systems is rare: translators most often deal with partial or zero equivalence / conceptual voids. Kjaer argues that ‘non-equivalence is the rule rather than the exception’ .. When searching for an equivalent, the translator should first decide whether it is possible to use a functional equivalent, also known as a dynamic or natural equivalent, that is a term which exists in the target legal system. This technique is regarded as the ideal solution …; however, Sarvcevic emphasises that its acceptability depends on the degree of incongruity between source language and target language concepts … functional equivalents are possible when incongruity is relatively small …”

Lucja Biel, Lost in the Eurofog: The textual fit of translated law, Peter Lang Editions (2014), p. 42


“The fuzziness of the category of legal translation derives from the fuzziness of the category of legal language. Legal translation is unquestionably a type of specialised translation and, as demonstrated by Asensio, is notoriously difficult to define through traditional criteria applied to specialised translation … As to the degree of specialisation, legal translation is not only a communication between experts but also may be addressed to citizens (e.g. judgments, legislation). In respect of the subject matter, it should be treated as a category with fuzzy boundaries, as law regulates various fields and areas of life and the ‘legal frame of activity’ may sometimes be decisive in classifying a text as legal translation.”

Lucja Biel, Lost in the Eurofog: The textual fit of translated law, Peter Lang Editions (2014), p. 50-51

“From a legal point of view, adding or subtracting information in legal translation is a high-risk procedure, because of the potential change of legal meaning and/or effect of the target text, and therefore it is reasonable to assume that explicitation and implicitation will be a relatively rare phenomenon in legal translation”

Hjort-Pedersen, M. & Faber, D. (2010), “Explicitation and implicitation in legal translation – A process study of trainee translators” Meta: Translators’ Journal 55(2), 237-250 at 238

“Not only does [legal translation] require basic knowledge of the respective legal systems, familiarity with the relevant terminology and competence in the target language’s specific legal style of writing, but also an extensive knowledge of the respective legal topic in both source and target language.”

Source: Bhatia/Candlin & Allori 2008:17

Translating the workings of a civil law system into English (common law) terminology can be extremely difficult, as all those who have ever attempted it will know. The reason for the complexity is simple; translating from one system to another system is far from straightforward. When, for example a Dutch lawyer has to explain his legal system to a common law lawyer, it is not simply a matter of replacing Dutch words with English words. The Dutch system is not a carbon copy of the English system, which means that there will not always be equivalent English terminology at hand for translation purposes. In order to use English legal terminology correctly and effectively, the practitioner must not only be familiar with his own legal system, but also have a basic grasp of the structure of the common law system.

Source: Helen Gubby, English legal terminology: Legal concepts in language (Boom Juridische Studieboeken)

by Eva Angelopoulou

“It is generally accepted in the general public that the legal language spoken in court and written in legal documents is hard or even impossible to understand. Studies show that there are indeed some differences between ordinary and legal language (in particular, in vocabulary and the standards of drafting). However, legal language must appear incoherent to the general public for another reason – in addition to the words used, and their grammatical structure. Legal language must appear incoherent not just because of what is said in this language but also because of what goes in it without saying: the professional legal knowledge presumed, as a rule, in legal texts. This knowledge is presented explicitly only rarely but typical legal texts can be thoroughly understood only if it is regarded as implicit in them.”


Professor Le Cheng (Zhejiang University)

It would seem therefore that legal translation is, at best, an approximation. Indeed, many lawyers acknowledge that this is so and that equal meaning and exact translations between legal texts are illusions that cannot be achieved in practice. Thus, many claim that the task of the legal translator is ‘to make the foreign legal text accessible for recipients with a different (legal) background’. However, that claim only works with regard to texts that do not have force of law in the target language.

Karen McAuliffe: Translating Ambiguity,The Journal of Comparative Law, Vol 9(2)

Legal translation is concerned with comparative law and the incongruency of legal systems: elements of one legal system cannot simply be transposed into another legal system. In legal translation the comparison of legal terms precedes their translation. Legal translators must compare the meaning of terms in the source and target legal systems, which will make them aware of similarities and differences in their use across languages.

Karen McAuliffe: Translating Ambiguity,The Journal of Comparative Law, Vol 9(2)


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