For the second in our series of interviews with legal translators and experts in the field of legal translation, we have an interview with Daniel Webber, legal translator, who talks about the challenges he faces in his day-to-day work, how he overcomes them and the tools of his trade.
Welcome Daniel, tell me a little bit about your background…
I was raised fully bilingual in an extended family of translators, so becoming involved in the “family business”, so to speak, was a matter of course. My brother (also a translator) and I started helping with translation tasks at an early age, graduating from printing and delivering translations by hand to clients in the 1990s to eventually taking on small translation tasks, under our mother’s tutelage and oversight. We both received BAs in English Language and Literature while working part-time in translation, first working on texts requiring a rudimentary grasp of translation, eventually building up our vocabularies and skills, thanks in no small part to the patience and good faith of editors and revisers engaged by translation firms in Thessaloniki and Athens. After graduating in 2007, I became a full-time freelance translator, working predominantly in the EL-EN language combination.
Over time, I found myself drawn to legal translation, starting with simple texts such as summonses, solemn declarations and extra-judicial statements and eventually moving on to actions, appeals and Court judgments. The requirements of style, the intricacies of legal procedure and the often obscure jargon specific to legal documents belie the fact that, in essence, legal translation is oftentimes the most straightforward of translation tasks, as the objective is to provide an accurate translation of an original text that has been laboured over in order to be accurate and concise as well. There is no need to beautify or embellish the text, which is often a requirement implied or actually requested by clients, e.g. in the case of brochures and advertising material, where the translator is essentially asked to serve as a copywriter.
You say you increasingly specialise in legal translation. Do legal translators need to have studied law to be good at what they do or can you do it the other way round too? Translation studies then study the law …
I think having studied law is certainly one of the makings of good legal translators, especially considering the need to familiarise oneself with the functioning of the Greek legal system and the paucity of equivalent terms between the legal systems of various countries, but it is by no means a prerequisite. Being proficient in at least one if not two foreign languages, which is often the case for anyone who has gone to primary and secondary school in Greece, and holding a degree in law would make one an ideal candidate for becoming a lawyer-linguist engaged by the ECJ or any other European institution, an appealing thought in times of crisis and an avenue perhaps more desirable and certainly better paid than freelance translation.
Focusing on legal translation after obtaining a degree in translation or a foreign language is definitely a feasible prospect at present, as technology offers solutions that either did not exist or were not affordable twenty years ago, such as access to Curia and Eur-Lex, to name two major resources, or the availability of bilingual dictionaries focusing specifically on law. In any event, there is no substitute for experience, with trial-and-error and revisions made and listened to in good faith being key factors in the development of the vocabulary and style specific to legal translation. The opportunity to attend seminars and courses focusing solely on legal translation is also a key factor in developing these skills.
What sort of things do your normally translate?
My workload in terms of legal translation mainly consists of actions, statements of defence, responses and rejoinders, appeals and Court judgments, along with the ancillary documents accompanying them concerning proof of service of documents, Apostilles, etc.
What are the challenges you face with the documents you translate?
The main challenge I face when translating legal documents is, more often than not, the pressing deadlines given by clients, a phenomenon apparently on the rise in all aspects of translation. There is more than a little pressure involved in delivering a high-quality translation in a short period of time, and I have to make use of the resources available to me (from translation memories and bilingual websites to physical dictionaries and glossaries) as seamlessly as possible.
Other challenges are the commonplace grievances of all translators, such as finding the right word or phrase, grasping the meaning in a sentence – that, given the verbose nature of Greek legal texts, may span paragraphs and sometimes even pages – before properly conveying it, and making sure the deliverable sounds natural, avoiding the pitfalls abundantly offered by Greek syntax.
Finally, a minor gripe is that, given the bureaucracy and paperwork involved in the Greek legal system, most source documents are provided in scanned (and with the advent of mobile telephones equipped with cameras, even photographed) form, requiring additional OCR work to be done before the translation task itself can begin.
Can you give me a practical example of a challenge and how you overcame it?
One recent example involved a legal document in the field of administrative law that contained vague yet numerous references to a disciplinary body within an institution. The only way of fully grasping the role and remit of this body was to search and find the by-laws of the institution in question, scan them quickly but thoroughly, and come up with an acceptable translation of its duties. This not only resulted in a more satisfactory translation, but also gave me a better understanding of the inner functions of such institutions and will come in handy in the future – and is yet another example of how crucial targeted and comprehensive research is during any translation task.
Do you think there are adequate resources available for legal translators in the languages you work in?
The absence of equivalents notwithstanding, I think that in 2019 the resources at our disposal are a good start and much better, more streamlined and definitely more numerous than in the past. As I noted above, Curia and Eur-Lex are my go-to resources for legal translation, containing a wealth of information when I need to find the appropriate word or turn of phrase, if not verbatim passages. Investing in dictionaries and glossaries, such as those of Stamelos, Hiotakis and by Stafylidis Publications to name but three, are also a help. I also consult the most recent translation of the Greek Penal Code by Emmanouil Billis quite often, as well as the official translation of the Hellenic Constitution. The most important resource, however, is building, reviewing, improving and updating a translation memory of one’s own using CAT software.
What’s your opinion about the quality of those dictionaries?
The Hiotakis dictionary is comprehensive, but some of the terms used are antiquated. The Stafylidis dictionary is a solid resource, but mostly for translating from English into Greek rather than vice-versa. The Stamelos dictionary has very good explanations of concepts found in UK law and a more than passable Greek-to-English glossary.
Have you attended any training courses on legal translation? Do you think it is important? Or is it more important to attend CPD on just legal issues, and keep up-to-date with the law?
Being based in Thessaloniki, attending courses on legal translation has not been an option for me to date. There were discussions of an online course by one of the major Athens-based translation schools, but they have not led to any courses being held yet. I think anyone interested in becoming involved in legal translation or improving their understanding of the Greek legal system and the complex issues arising in relation to legal translation from and into Greek would be well served by attending such courses if they have the opportunity. CPD is always welcome (and actually required by the Panhellenic Association of Translators), and if one has the resources, mainly in terms of time, to attend seminars addressing specific issues and changes to laws, they would stand to gain much from participation.
What’s your overall impression of the legal translation market in Greece?
From my experience, law firms make for faithful, long-term clients of translation agencies, repeatedly trusting the same translators, revisers and editors (whether freelance or in-house) to deliver high-quality translations where the translator has comprehended the source material and found elegant and accurate ways to convey the meaning intended. Specific clients, meaning both law firms and translation agencies, tend to work in specific fields of law, so familiarising oneself with the core concepts of those fields is key for delivering a respectable translation and securing the client’s preference in the future. When taking on work for individuals, e.g. those seeking recourse with European or foreign institutions or involved in cases of a personal nature, the factor of addressing the client’s wishes, desires and fears also arises. The best way to deal with all the foregoing is confidence in one’s knowledge and skills, as well as modesty in one’s understanding, as no translator is infallible and all-knowing, and no translation is absolutely perfect.
Thank you Daniel.
I hope all is well with you?
An interesting interview with Daniel.
I would be happy to be interviewed for the blog.
Hi Sue. thanks. I’ll add you to the list 🙂
Comments on Technical/Specialised Translation
(particularly when a minority language is involved)
Having entered the translation/interpreting profession without any specific training, but with wide academic/encyclopaedic knowledge (basic sciences in Medicine, Drama, Biology and Humanities for Teacher’s Training), and having taught/mentored numerous younger translators/interpreters and cooperated with experts of various disciplines, I would like to make a few comments on the interview I have just read.
I believe it is easier for someone who knows the tricks of the trade of translating, interpreting, and negotiating to master specific fields of knowledge and keep up with theoretical and practical applications generated in various disciplines, as opposed to a practising professional of a specific discipline learning how to translate/interpret professionally, i.e. so that they can make a living from their work in a specific area, especially when one of the languages involved has a limited number of native users.
I think it is a general problem of our times for most experts to communicate with those of other fields, because of relatively early specialisation in our careers; this means that when we have gained enough experience to reach the decision-making phase of our lives, which always involves other people from various backgrounds, we have to negotiate, share knowledge and experience and learn each other’s jargon, nuances, pressing matters and backgrounds behind the text at hand.
In my view, translators and interpreters are academically more qualified and wealthier in experience in such skills than a successful barrister, surgeon or artist. What matters is not the terminology or competence in one or more other languages. What matters is that professionals in our ‘trade’ are well-practised in asking clarifying questions and protecting/promoting the text, idea, concept, function of what they are working on. It is not always easy for someone who has not been caught between the two or three languages they serve (and usually love) to extricate themselves from the usually monolingual path of an expert’s thread of thought (and sometimes, one’s dominant language is not their native one, but rather the prevalent language in which they received their post-graduate education and in which they communicate professionally).
Especially in the case of Greek, which is a language with a long history in scientific, artistic, craft, technology -and not only- terminology, one cannot afford to specialise in any one field, simply because there is not enough material to translate to and from. Therefore, translation/interpreting professionals are obliged to keep learning, if they want to survive. They also have to cooperate with other translators/interpreters with complementary skills when demanding texts are negotiated, and with other bilingual/trilingual individuals with specific knowledge of the material being processed and, even, with those in charge of the publication, who have a say in the style or purpose/audience of the project.
For me, working with others, as team members with different skills and tasks, has been what makes this job so satisfying after all these years and a true vocation for building bridges. We learn to appreciate each other, recognise that we cannot do everything on our own, be productive and deliver the goods on time in an emergency, find relief in being able to rely on someone else when we cannot resolve a situation and, above all, enjoy enhanced creativity in a profession that is otherwise truly lonely and, on occasion, mechanical.
What might be a problem is that it is not easy for someone who is recognised as an expert in their field and someone with a successful career to negotiate with other experts. One needs to make time to learn each other’s vocabulary and the particularities of various fields and broaden their perspective; besides, this means recognising that their own expertise is not but a small part of the whole. It takes maturity, good will and dedication to the cause of sharing ideas and protecting ‘minority’ languages and cultures, even if the financial reward is relatively small. This is where states and academic institutions could help (with funds and resources), but this is another matter for another time.