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Accuracy issues in legal translation
Thread poster: Tim Drayton

Tim Drayton  Identity Verified
Cyprus
Local time: 04:22
Turkish to English
+ ...
Dec 27, 2006

I quite often translate documents from Turkish into English where the end client is a firm of solicitors in the UK. The more legal translation work I do, the more aware I become of various problems inherent in this sort of work. I am specifically thinking of documents which will be presented in translated form as evidence before a court of law. This may even be a fraud case which specifically revolves around the content of the documents. I have received instructions with work of this kind along the lines of “translate verbatim without adding or detracting anything”. This is obviously easier said than done, and there are certain situations where I find I am unsure what to do. All translation involves making compromises between literal accuracy and good style, but in work of the kind I am discussing here the translator can sometimes end up between a rock and a hard place, such as where there is an obvious inaccuracy in the source text: do you ‘correct’ the inaccuracy in the interests of producing a polished translation or retain the inaccuracy and risk appearing unprofessional? I have given some examples of the kinds of situation I am thinking of below. The examples I quote involve Turkish, but of course the same issues arise whatever the language.
I am particularly interested in knowing if there are any sources of prescriptive rules for the kinds of situation I describe, such as authoritative books or instructions issued by courts. I am also curious to know how colleagues handle these and similar problems.

ERRORS/FLAWS IN THE SOURCE TEXT

1 Obvious typological errors. e.g.

ankara – not capitalised. Leave as it is or correct it? I think I would correct this.
verldi – clearly meant to be “verildi”, “was given” in Turkish. It would be a bit silly to arbitrarily drop a vowel in the translation, e.g. “ws given”, so I think there is no option other than to translate into correctly spelled English.
John Smiht – a misspelled proper name. Here I think the misspelling may have legal repercussions and I would retain the error.

2 Flawed syntax

This is a problem I encounter fairly often. Frequently a sentence isn’t fully grammatical but it is abundantly clear from the context what was meant.
For instance, the Turkish word “köy” meaning “village” can take the case inflections “köyden” (“from the village”) and “köyde” (“in the village”). Instead of “Köyden taşındı” (“He/she moved from the village”), you may see “Köyde taşındı” – this particular error is not uncommon in Turkish texts, I think because the spell check does not pick it up. Does one translate what one interprets the intended meaning to be, or create an ungrammatical English sentence that mirrors the error, i.e. “He/she moved in the village”? The latter opition obviously invites crticism that the translator cannot write proper English, even if it is a totally ‘accurate’ translation.

3 Flawed reproduction
Frequently I face documents on which there are areas of obscured text, especially photocopies which have been placed too far to one side on the photocopier such that a few letters are missing at one edge of the text. One obvious solution would be to ask the client to make/obtain a better copy, but often the point is that this is the only available copy, or even that the document in question has been notarised or submitted under a formal procedure and thus has acquired an official status, even if partly illegible. If only two or three letters are obscured in each line it is usually easy to reconstruct the whole text, and I would place the note “(obscured)” between words where this is not possible. But, are we entitled to ‘reconstruct’ texts in this manner?

FAITHFULNESS TO THE SOURCE TEXT V. PLAUSIBLE TARGET LANGUAGE

1 Terminology
The question here is whether or not, when translating an item of legal terminology, one should try to find a cognate term used in the legal system of the country in which the translation is used. The risk here is that, although the translation will sound more ‘plaiusible’, the two terms are unlikely to be totally synonymous and the reader may assume that a certain instrument or procedure functions in the same way in both jurisdictions. For example, the document drawn up by the officer executing a warrant of distraint including an inventory of the distrained items could well be translated as a “distraint notice”, but as far as I know in the UK this document is presented to the debtor and s/he has five days to make payment, whereas in Turkey it is simply submitted to the case file. This problem is particularly acute, I believe, when translating documents compiled under a codified legal system and where the English-language ‘equivalent’ is a concept rooted in common law and thus may actually be a ‘very different animal’.

2 Style
One of the points requested in a petition to a court, when translated literally from Turkish reads, “…to impose a remedy on a $... portion of X’s accounts at banks”, which reads like dreadful translationese. This idea would perhaps be expressed in a similar English-language document as, “…to issue an attachment order directing banks to freeze funds of $... deposited with them by X.” This reads like a polished translation, but could attract criticism for not being an accurate rendering of the original, and also introduces concepts like “attachment order” and “freeze” not used in the original text, with the potential dangers mentioned above.


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Steven Capsuto  Identity Verified
United States
Local time: 21:22
Spanish to English
+ ...
Footnotes Dec 27, 2006

If there's no good way to keep a relevant element of the original, I get the target text as close as I can and then add a translator's note at the bottom of the page to explain the ambiguity.

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Selcuk Akyuz  Identity Verified
Turkey
Local time: 05:22
Member (2006)
English to Turkish
+ ...
Flawed reproduction Dec 28, 2006

Tim Drayton wrote:
If only two or three letters are obscured in each line it is usually easy to reconstruct the whole text, and I would place the note “(obscured)” between words where this is not possible. But, are we entitled to ‘reconstruct’ texts in this manner?


Hello Tim,

Reconstruction of the text may sometimes result in problems, in particular in Turkish. As you know it, Turkish is an agglutinative language. So, a line ending with "şahitler çağırıl" may continue with "çağırıldı" or "çağırılmadı" (witnesses were [not] invited).

A solution may be to add [illegible] in a proper place and to make explanations.


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Özden Arıkan  Identity Verified
Germany
Local time: 03:22
Member
English to Turkish
Turkish documents Dec 28, 2006

Hi Tim,

I only occasionally do such translations, and they are mostly the other way around (i.e., into Turkish), but I'd like to warn you that Turkish official documents, especially those issued in small local communities, are notorious with their abundance of such errors. You don't need to convey "verldi" as "givn", of course, and you can well capitalize "ankara", but be careful with personal names, especially in legal documents. There are actually people who live by misspelled names all their lives, unless they take the ardous way of changing their names by court decree. (I remember one Fehriye, for instance, which should have been Fahriye, as you probably know.) If I were you, I would certainly stick to the original where the name is in Turkish, but for misspelled foreign names as in the example of John Smiht, better to warn the client and might be still better to insert a translator's note, where possible.

As for "köyde taşındı", it might well be a legitimate local way of expressing this if you encounter it too often - weird as it might sound


Regards,
Özden



[Edited at 2006-12-29 13:40]


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xxxIreneN
United States
Local time: 20:22
English to Russian
+ ...
Not an easy task Dec 28, 2006

Back in the mid-90s of the last century I worked on the arbitration proceedings both as a translator and an interpreter. We had tons of problems with plain erroneous translations but we were warned that the initial documentation of the joint venture in question, along with the initial arbitration claim package have already been submitted to the arbiters. The documents have been written in Russian and translated into English locally in one of the former USSR republics. It was a total disaster in both languages. Later, when the US firm was hired and, in turn, attracted the US-based translators (Russian and English natives), we managed to save and refine many things; however, the list of about 15-20 prime terms remained untouched and untoucheable because we have been instructed to keep certain terminology as presented in those initial documents. Some of them made us grind our teeth every time we bumped into them, but our hands were tied!

I'd say be careful and as close to the original as humanly possible. I would never attempt to reconstruct the text.


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Henry Hinds  Identity Verified
United States
Local time: 19:22
English to Spanish
+ ...
Good Advice Dec 28, 2006

I would echo some of the good advice you have been given. Among other things, I work a lot with Mexican documents (Spanish to English) that can present many of the same problems you mention such as errors, flaws and illegiblity. I normally deal with those by using notes.

There have been cases in which I have had to reconstruct illegible text by using my own knowledge of what something "should say" and deducing from that what it "does say". In such cases I will also include a note emphasizing that the original has poor legibility, lapses in grammar, spelling, etc. so people will know what kind of conditions I am laboring under, and realize that there is a possibility I could be wrong, which I try to minimize.

However, I feel that: 1.- My clients are entitled to 100% of my expertise in translating a text, so I will not deprive them of any bit of knowledge I might be able to contribute although risky, rather than omit something; 2.- Many times the rest of the text will not make any sense if it cannot be completed, so I do my utmost to complete it; and 3.- I will only reconstruct part of a text when I know I an positively reproduce it word for word in the source language on demand.

Where there are inconsistencies I use (sic) so they know it is not the translator who might have been drunk or asleep that day, but the person who wrote the original.

I try to use a smooth and natural style in the target language while not omitting any of the nuances, which is not easy but comes with much practice. However, there are times when the language may have to come out somewhat stilted as there is no other way to observe precision which is paramount.

Regarding terminology, I also deal with very different legal systems and therefore must often use approximations or terms that may reflect a very different mechanism but might be better understood by a functional equivalent. It is hard to give examples, but such compromises must be made all the time. I just make sure that I would be able to explain and justify my choices if asked to do so.

One thing I have emphasized is that the terminology I use IS approximate, and is GENERIC, not specific. As we all know, specific laws in specific places give certain terms specific meanings, yet I do not have such intentions. I am not relating to any specific meanings that may exist in any law in the target language.

One terminology example comes from a murder case; knowing that the parties were very anxious to see how I would translate a particular term for murder, reflecting the degree, I used a neutral term and supplied them a copy of a page from a bilingual dictionary that gave a whole laundry list of equivalents of varying degrees.

Fortunately the Mexican law defining that particular degree of murder was also included and translated, so I merely told them, "if you really want to know what it means, then read the law".

As an example for reconstruction, I had to come up with an entire line that had been lopped off the end of a page. Fortunately I had a pretty good idea of what it should say, and the original paper from which the copy had been made was apparently very thin, as a shadow of text on the other side showed through.

I found where the shadow of the missing line should be and held it up to a mirror, and using that mirror image I was able to confirm and reconstruct a line that was not on the page. Of course I included a note explaining what I had done.

The part about being able to explain and justify what has been done I think is an important one. If you always keep that in mind when you make your choices, then you will make good choices, and if the occasion arises you can defend them.


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Tim Drayton  Identity Verified
Cyprus
Local time: 04:22
Turkish to English
+ ...
TOPIC STARTER
I take the point Dec 28, 2006

Selcuk Akyuz wrote:

Tim Drayton wrote:
If only two or three letters are obscured in each line it is usually easy to reconstruct the whole text, and I would place the note “(obscured)” between words where this is not possible. But, are we entitled to ‘reconstruct’ texts in this manner?


Hello Tim,

Reconstruction of the text may sometimes result in problems, in particular in Turkish. As you know it, Turkish is an agglutinative language. So, a line ending with "şahitler çağırıl" may continue with "çağırıldı" or "çağırılmadı" (witnesses were [not] invited).

A solution may be to add [illegible] in a proper place and to make explanations.




Selcuk,
Sure I understand very well what you mean. But often the point is that TUrkish word order and syntax is SO different from English that if you do not do a certain amount of 'reconstruction' you are left with nothing meaningful at all. Are there cases where you simply turn round and tell the client that it just cannot be done, at least not under conditions where you are personally liable for mistakes?


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Victor Dewsbery  Identity Verified
Germany
Local time: 03:22
German to English
+ ...
Terminology and mixed jurisdictions Dec 28, 2006

I agree with your reserve about using equivalent legal terminology from the legal system of the target country. It could definitely lead people in the target country to make false assumptions about what is actually meant. So as Henry suggested, the terminology should be generic.

One example that comes to mind is the "official" English translations of the various courts in the German system, which are actually prescribed by the courts themselves:
Amtsgericht = local court
Landgericht = district court
etc.

Some people object that there are no such courts in English-speaking countries, and suggest using "magistrates court", "municipal court", "county court", "regional court" "district court" or various other terms. But that brings up other problems: what is the structure of an "Amtsgericht", how does a county court in the UK work, can they really be seen as equivalents?
Using an English term that is not used in the UK or US can actually be helpful in underlining that the proceedings took place in a different jurisdiction.

Otherwise I agree with the general remarks made in this thread (correction of obvious grammatical errors, care with misspelled names as they may be significant, footnotes on any ambiguity or any matter that could be an error of content in the original etc.)

One closing thought from the seminar on Legal Translation at the City University in London a year or two ago: a qualified solicitor who is also a translator spoke about some of the issues that have been mentioned here and said:
"There is no such thing as a perfect legal translation."


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Tim Drayton  Identity Verified
Cyprus
Local time: 04:22
Turkish to English
+ ...
TOPIC STARTER
I know what you mean Dec 28, 2006

Özden Arıkan wrote:

Hi Tim,

I only occasionally do such translations, and they are mostly the other way around (i.e., into Turkish), but I'd like to warn you that Turkish official documents, especially those issued in small local communities, are notorious with their abundance of such errors.
...
As for "köyde taşındı", it might well be a legitimate local way of expressing this if you encounter it too often - weird as it might sound


Regards,
Özden


I am currently working with a bundle of such documents from Giresun - Bulancak Sub-Province so I know what you mean about documents from small places!
What I meant was that I encountered this error where the -de/da ending is used when what is intended is the -den/dan ending, rather than the particular sentence about moving from the village,which I gave as a simple example.


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Selcuk Akyuz  Identity Verified
Turkey
Local time: 05:22
Member (2006)
English to Turkish
+ ...
Turkish legalese, definitely legalese Dec 28, 2006

and I sometimes feel reading a foreign language text, not Turkish!

Tim Drayton wrote:
But often the point is that TUrkish word order and syntax is SO different from English that if you do not do a certain amount of 'reconstruction' you are left with nothing meaningful at all.


One of my favourite dictionaries is the Oxford Dictionary of Law. And I am sometimes surprised to see a definition such as:

plaint: n. Formerly a statement in writing of a cause of action, used to initiate actions in the country courts. ..., it has been REPLACED by the claim form.

Replaced?! Ok, then I should use claim form. The same with 'rogatory letter', I should better use 'letter of request', cause the former is obsolete. There are many examples of the new legalese in the legal dictionaries, Oxford, Curzon, Collins Dictionary of Law, Black's, etc. They all include the new, preferred terms and clearly state which are obsolote.

However, this is not the case with the Turkish monolingual or bilingual legal dictionaries. There are many of them in the shelves but many of them give explanations of obsolete terms. In fact these dictionaries reflect the Turkish legalese, old and new terms, obsolete and new terms all in the same context. Many mistyped words, unclear sentences. Perfect legalese for the layman, including the translators.

A text of the Court of Cassation (or Supreme Court of Appeal, Supreme Court, say whatever you like) may include one sentence with two thousand words. Then you should read ten pages to understand the sentence. Impossible task indeed! Well, in fact it consists of several sentences which may be connected with "whereas". But the legal professionals (and many politicians) do not like using paragraphs. They begin a sentence, don't care much about the grammar and punctuation rules and continue for pages. Therefore, the need to make some 'reconstruction' is not only the problem of non-native speakers of Turkish. We all try to make it as far as we could understand those long sentences. Poor writing skills of the legal professionals result in unclear translations.


Tim Drayton wrote:
Are there cases where you simply turn round and tell the client that it just cannot be done, at least not under conditions where you are personally liable for mistakes?


Surely! Many times I refuse the job. But once, I have called the agency, and asked them to express my thanks to the client who has written a perfect, flawless text, which was a pleasure for me to translate, but that was only once .


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Andy Watkinson
Spain
Local time: 03:22
Member
Catalan to English
+ ...
No punctuation...no law Dec 29, 2006

Hi Selcuk,

The long deceased Lord Justice Birkett would not agree with the following opinion:

"They (legal professionals) begin a sentence, don't care much about the grammar and punctuation rules and continue for pages."

To use Birkett's words..........

"The lawyer (...) does not actively wish to write obscurely, nor does he wish to omit the commas which would make his document so much easier to read. But a very "light" punctuation is part of the tradition of statute composition, in deference to such principles as (...) ´Words Should Stand by the their own Strength'. There has thus been a feeling that if a statute requires punctuation to make it clear, then the wording must to that extent be deficient and perhaps dangerously ambiguous."

It's not that "they don't care about the grammar and punctuation"; on the contrary, they are more aware of them than most other professions (except translators, of course).

And I'm not a lawyer)

Andy.


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Selcuk Akyuz  Identity Verified
Turkey
Local time: 05:22
Member (2006)
English to Turkish
+ ...
Clarification Dec 29, 2006

Andy Watkinson wrote:

Hi Selcuk,

The long deceased Lord Justice Birkett would not agree with the following opinion:

"They (legal professionals) begin a sentence, don't care much about the grammar and punctuation rules and continue for pages."



Hi Andy,

To clarify my point, you may read it "many Turkish legal professionals".

Selcuk


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xxxLawyer-Lingu
Portugal
Local time: 02:22
Dutch to English
+ ...
From a lawyer's perspective ...... Dec 29, 2006

Andy Watkinson wrote:

To use Birkett's words..........

"The lawyer (...) does not actively wish to write obscurely, nor does he wish to omit the commas which would make his document so much easier to read. But a very "light" punctuation is part of the tradition of statute composition, in deference to such principles as (...) ´Words Should Stand by the their own Strength'. There has thus been a feeling that if a statute requires punctuation to make it clear, then the wording must to that extent be deficient and perhaps dangerously ambiguous."

It's not that "they don't care about the grammar and punctuation"; on the contrary, they are more aware of them than most other professions (except translators, of course).

And I'm not a lawyer)

Andy.


I am and thanks

Whilst it's true there is poor drafting out there - just as there are poor plumbers, doctors and yes, even translators - well-written legalese is not obscure at all, yet it does take specific training to fully understand (and hence translate) it.







[Edited at 2006-12-30 12:32]


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Tim Drayton  Identity Verified
Cyprus
Local time: 04:22
Turkish to English
+ ...
TOPIC STARTER
I think the people who draft Turkish legislation do a very good job Dec 30, 2006

Selcuk Akyuz wrote:


Hi Andy,

To clarify my point, you may read it "many Turkish legal professionals".

Selcuk


At the risk of extending this thread ad infinitum, I would just like to comment that in my opinion new legislation introduced in Turkey over the past five years or so has been framed in very clear and elegant language and thankfully archaic terminology has been dispensed with.


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Özden Arıkan  Identity Verified
Germany
Local time: 03:22
Member
English to Turkish
That's correct Dec 30, 2006

Tim Drayton wrote:
At the risk of extending this thread ad infinitum, I would just like to comment that in my opinion new legislation introduced in Turkey over the past five years or so has been framed in very clear and elegant language and thankfully archaic terminology has been dispensed with.



And it should not be forgotten that most of the existing legislation in Turkey was put down in writing in an era when the country was changing alphabets. Let alone being an easy task, it's something quite traumatic, in fact, even in 1920s when the rate of literacy was relatively low. Imagine, the visual memory of a whole population was reset overnight. Today, the handwriting of older generations still have traces of the old form of writing, even though they never actually learned to write in the old script. (My father, for instance, began school in 1934, much later than the new script was introduced. He never learned to read and write in the old script, but still his handwriting looks like it.)

And it's not only the script, but there was also the purification movement in language, as a result of which the official jargon and the language of the lay people converged. But many of the existing legislation still has the remnants of the Indo-Europeanish Ottoman syntax that is incompatible with Turkish, hence makes things all the more incomprehensible for today's Turkish speaker who has been entirely educated in the 'new' language. Therefore, it would be only all too easy to draw conclusions about the capability of legal translators without having the slightest idea of a language's history.

But what you say is correct, Tim. Newly formulated legislation is quite successful in that regard. It is readable and comprehensible, if not for anything else, for the fact that the expected distance between full stops has been shortened to a few meters, as a result of which, you are at least not out of breath while reading it



[Edited at 2006-12-30 13:13]


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