what would you prefer ?
Thread poster: Liviu-Lee Roth

Liviu-Lee Roth
United States
Local time: 06:26
Romanian to English
+ ...
Aug 22, 2013

Recently I had a debate with the PM of an agency about who could provide a better translation of legal documents regarding criminal matters.
The question is about what would you prefer: a good linguist with average legal skills or a good jurist with average linguistic skills ?

What is your opinion ?

Best,
lee


 

Phil Hand  Identity Verified
China
Local time: 18:26
Chinese to English
It depends Aug 22, 2013

Inevitably, the answer must be "it depends".

First off, we shouldn't be so quick to accept that these two different skills are possible. In order to be a good linguist, you have to understand the source text; in order to understand the source text, you have to know a lot of law. Conversely, you can only be a good jurist if you understand what's being said. So I'm not really convinced that one can easily distinguish between the "good linguist" and the "good jurist".

But I know what you mean, and my answer would be, it depends on who the client is. If the client is the court, then you might be better off going with the jurist. If the client is an external interested party, then you might be better off with the linguist. But it's worth noting that the so-called good jurist would probably have to be a legal expert in two separate jurisdictions. If they are not a legal expert in one of the relevant languages, then all that legal know-how might well get lost in translation, anyway. So in the absence of further information, I'd lean toward using the linguist.


 

Marie-Helene Dubois  Identity Verified
Spain
Local time: 12:26
Member (2011)
Spanish to English
+ ...
Yes it does depend Aug 22, 2013

I agree with Phil that it's tricky to really accurately make a distinction between the two.
A lot of what can go wrong with legal translation is to do with a word or words, whether they be wrongly used or misplaced or actually mean the opposite of what is intended.

I'm not sure if an average linguist who is a good jurist would be able to make the distinction between the right and the wrong words because it's actually quite hard to imagine what the potential pitfalls could be of an average linguist/good jurist translating a text if not presented with a specific case.

But again, there are people who perhaps are not able to communicate well in a second language on a variety of subjects but are able to communicate at a highly technical level in their field of expertise in that language.

I would therefore also lean towards the good linguist because a good linguist should also be a good researcher and be able to convey an idea accurately in a target language and accurately understand a source language.

A good jurist in one language may not be able to accurately convey the same in another.

Again, this is in the absence of any particular specific example that may sway my opinion to the other side.


 

B D Finch  Identity Verified
France
Local time: 12:26
Member (2006)
French to English
+ ...
Ideally, one of each Aug 22, 2013

Either way, you may get errors that could be serious. Ideally, I think, you would have the document translated by the linguist and proofread by the jurist and they should communicate with each other so that the linguist learns from any mistakes.

 

kamiel verwer  Identity Verified
Germany
Local time: 12:26
German to Dutch
+ ...
Both Aug 22, 2013

I agree with BD Finch. I've worked on legal translations and I'm not a jurist. I charge a lower fee for it and add a disclaimer.

A jurist native (and a jurist!) in the target language should ideally proofread the text when it is legally essential. In many cases translations (of terms and conditions) include a clause "only the original language is binding"


 

Christine Andersen  Identity Verified
Denmark
Local time: 12:26
Member (2003)
Danish to English
+ ...
A linguist trained in comparative law Aug 22, 2013

You have to be something of a linguist to cope with law at all, but if lawyers are basically monolingual, it does not stop them being excellent lawyers.

A legal translator needs a very good grasp of both languages, AND a detailed knowledge of the legal systems in both countries. Maybe not quite detailed enough to practise law - and even lawyers keep to their own specialist fields as a rule.

It depends on the situation, but the translator needs to know when the law in one country or legal system is different from another.

Just as an example, when a marriage ends through divorce or the death of one spouse, the way their property is divided between spouses or their heirs may be very different in different legal systems.

Here the translator needs to know the terminology in both languages - and not necessarily use the same terminology as the law of the country where the target language is spoken.

Danish law translated into English may be very different from English law that would apply in the UK in the same situation. Inheritance law and wills are a case in point.

Mutatis mutandi, the same goes for any two legal systems, and this could be an argument for a lawyer who is a linguist being chosen to do the translation.

Maybe it is nit-picking, but I would say nevertheless that it is still more important to be a linguist who is well-versed in both cultures and legal systems. That person would be able to check points of law as required for the translation, but need not actually be qualified and authorised to practise law in either of them.
___________________________________

To answer your question, I doubt if either of the scenarios you describe would result in a satisfactory translation.

I have proofread a fair amount of legal translations, and I would not trust a Danish lawyer with 'average' linguistic abilities, even though on average, Danes are quite good at English.
As for an English lawyer with 'average' linguistic abilities - for English people - with all due respect to the many excellent English linguists around - you must be joking.

Legal translation calls for specialist training in law AND languages, and unless it follows a basic template for a standard lease or contract quite closely, then it should be translated by someone who specialises in both areas.



[Edited at 2013-08-22 08:56 GMT]


 

Michael Wetzel  Identity Verified
Germany
Local time: 12:26
German to English
A good jurist Aug 22, 2013

I'd rather have a good jurist (assuming that he or she has a good grasp of the source language and the source legal system, otherwise the question is nonsense) that is a competent translator and writer than a good translator and writer with a basic knowledge of law.

The shortcomings in the translation of the former will be much less damaging and much less annoying to everyone involved than the shortcomings in the translation of the latter.


 

Annamaria Amik  Identity Verified
Local time: 13:26
Romanian to English
+ ...
A good jurist Aug 22, 2013

Michael Wetzel wrote:

I'd rather have a good jurist (assuming that he or she has a good grasp of the source language and the source legal system, otherwise the question is nonsense) that is a competent translator and writer than a good translator and writer with a basic knowledge of law.

The shortcomings in the translation of the former will be much less damaging and much less annoying to everyone involved than the shortcomings in the translation of the latter.


I agree. I read legal translations written by excellent linguists with little to some legal knowledge and they were much harder to correct than average translations of lawyers. I also agree with the colleagues above in that this distinction is hard to make. Average legal skills could mean anything. Still, someone who has little idea about contracts, court decisions, the usual legal matters of companies (to mention a few of the legal stuff I'm dealing with), can never produce a satisfactory legal text if they haven't seen how this stuff works in practice.

Anothing thing I find very important is that the translations of excellent linguists will contain fewer evident errors to raise red flags, which means they can still write something that sounds "deceivingly" correct and in that case, a really good lawyer should be doing the editing. Some fields are not that easy to research for outsiders.

For an editor, I think it's easier to correct linguistic mistakes of lawyers with average language skills than to edit the wrong terminology of goods linguists. In the first case, the editing/proofreading skills are easier to acquire than in the second case in which it takes legal expertise to spot errors.

On a more general note, I would prefer the linguist for texts targeted at the broader public and the jurist (or another expert) for texts written for professionals of the field.

[Edited at 2013-08-22 12:16 GMT]


 

LilianNekipelov  Identity Verified
United States
Local time: 06:26
Russian to English
+ ...
You don't have to be a lawyer to translate legal texts Aug 22, 2013

but you need very good linguistic skills in both languages, knowledge of legal language which is totally different form literary language, or any other type of language, and detailed knowledge about both legal systems. I mostly agree with Christine -- with most of what she said. For example Russian legal system is totally different from Polish, which makes a big difference when you translate form those languages into English. This was just an example.

 

Liviu-Lee Roth
United States
Local time: 06:26
Romanian to English
+ ...
TOPIC STARTER
a few comments Aug 22, 2013

Indeed, the premise is vague, therefore here are more details:

- the jurist was born, raised, educated and practiced criminal law for 15 years in country A, before going to country B where he is residing for the last 25 years and works as an court interpreter and translator;

- the linguist was born, raised, educated and worked as a translator/teacher in country A, before going to country B where he is residing for 10 years and works as a paralegal and translator.

The target language is the language spoken in country A.

The documents are official governmental documents pertaining to criminal matters (Indictments, Affidavits, requests for arrest and extradition) addressed from one judicial entity to the corresponding judicial entity of the other country.

@ LilianBNekipelo -"You don't have to be a lawyer to translate legal texts" !!!
I doubt that a linguist is able to understand and translate all the
subtleties of a complex legal document.
@Marie-Helene Dubois -"I'm not sure if an average linguist who is a good jurist would be able to make the distinction between the right and the wrong words because it's actually quite hard to imagine what the potential pitfalls could be of an average linguist/good jurist translating a text if not presented with a specific case. "
I would rather think that is the other way around. See the above answer.

Lee



[Edited at 2013-08-22 15:37 GMT]

[Edited at 2013-08-22 18:19 GMT]


 

Łukasz Gos-Furmankiewicz  Identity Verified
Poland
Local time: 12:26
English to Polish
+ ...
My $0.02 Aug 22, 2013

Marie-Helene Dubois wrote:

I agree with Phil that it's tricky to really accurately make a distinction between the two.
A lot of what can go wrong with legal translation is to do with a word or words, whether they be wrongly used or misplaced or actually mean the opposite of what is intended.


That's actually why I'd be reluctant to hire the average translator on the basis of my experience. Many translators work in an: 'approximate sense as I kinda have figured out,' mode. What is even worse, many professional linguists these days lack a precise understanding of grammatical structures, let alone the ability to use them flawlessly. The average university graduate struggles with complex sentences in his own L1, language graduates are somewhat better but not dramatically so. Many lawyers have the same problem, but a lawyer's drafting skills are usually subjected to peer review and feedback from courts and clients. A lawyer stands more chance of having these things drilled into him than a linguist and especially a somewhat happy-go-lucky linguist.

In an ideal world, however, a good linguist, but a really good linguist I mean here, should be the better choice here, mostly because he would figure out the language like a good linguist should while verifying the legal terms pretty much as in any other specialised field of translation.

In the practical world, the only one we live in, the problem with legal translations is not in the terms but in the language. The language (and lawyers actually call it 'language', e.g., 'the language of the statute' or, 'I inserted some of my own language in the contract') is actually what linguists struggle with. The problems they struggle with can be avoided by simply understanding what the text is about and what institutions are involved therein, but they could also be avoided by careful grammatical and syntactical and otherwise linguistic analysis. The latter is the real Achilles heel of legal translations, complete with an inability to maintain the appropriate register (which isn't much different in legal vs biblical or academic or government/diplomatic translation, actually).

I'm not sure if an average linguist who is a good jurist would be able to make the distinction between the right and the wrong words because it's actually quite hard to imagine what the potential pitfalls could be of an average linguist/good jurist translating a text if not presented with a specific case.


Both a good jurist and a good linguist ought not to fail to get those words right. As far as the average is concerned, yeah, the outcome is hard to visualise.

Also, the whole deliberation is pointless without pinpointing that lawyer's proficiency level in the source and target languages. A barely conversant lawyer and a fully professionally proficient lawyer are two different things. The latter is pretty much automatically at least a decent translator.

I would therefore also lean towards the good linguist because a good linguist should also be a good researcher and be able to convey an idea accurately in a target language and accurately understand a source language.


The same goes for a lawyer, actually, at least as long as it really is a lawyer and not some kind of legal manager that makes tactical and strategic decisions while everybody else does the actual lawyering. Research is a core skill, as is accurate writing and analysis of extent, even more so than for a linguist.

Christine Andersen wrote:

You have to be something of a linguist to cope with law at all,


Yup. A lack of linguistic skills basically stunts a lawyer.

Plus, lawyers constantly use legal interpretation. Where they can't satisfy themselves with linguistic construction, which is pretty much the same thing as formal equivalence, literal translation etc., they embark on functional interpretation, historical one, trace the drafter's intent and so on. Also, lawyers draft.

Here the translator needs to know the terminology in both languages - and not necessarily use the same terminology as the law of the country where the target language is spoken.

Danish law translated into English may be very different from English law that would apply in the UK in the same situation. Inheritance law and wills are a case in point.


Yes, and linguists often fail to get that point. They won't translate the terminology, even to something workable. They insist on using a term that appears in the typical day-to-day lawyering of the relevant country (relevant from the point of view of the target language), no matter if there really is that much equivalence. For example, while you can swap 'ex officio' with 'own motion' most of the time, a barrister vs a solicitor has little to do with an avocat vs a conseil juridique. But the typical linguist, as I imagine one, would fail to see any other possibility than deciding whether an avocat is a barrister or a solicitor or whether a barrister is an avocat or a conseil juridique.

Maybe it is nit-picking, but I would say nevertheless that it is still more important to be a linguist who is well-versed in both cultures and legal systems.


I agree, but, in line with what you said first, it's important to note that a lawyer who is a poor linguist will be a poor lawyer too. Linguistic or literal interpretations of legal rules proposed by those guys are a source of distress and embarrassment, especially when they are put in positions of authority.

That person would be able to check points of law as required for the translation, but need not actually be qualified and authorised to practise law in either of them.


Yeah, and first of all actual case-solving skills and being up to date on any recent amendments are not necessary.

Thus, a jurist will often be able to translate well in areas that he perhaps wouldn't be a great lawyer in, at least without some prior preparation. This is not to say that actually specialising in that area of the law wouldn't result in even better translations, of course, but there are few translations or any pieces of writing for that matter that can't be improved in the first place.

To answer your question, I doubt if either of the scenarios you describe would result in a satisfactory translation.


Yup.

Michael Wetzel wrote:

I'd rather have a good jurist (assuming that he or she has a good grasp of the source language and the source legal system, otherwise the question is nonsense) that is a competent translator and writer than a good translator and writer with a basic knowledge of law.

The shortcomings in the translation of the former will be much less damaging and much less annoying to everyone involved than the shortcomings in the translation of the latter.


Yes, also, linguists will attempt to rectify what they see as stylistic imperfections – which means that they will be streamlining the language into what they see as standard usage – even though those might actually be very intentional, very relevant and very significant instances of conscious use of (correct, actually!) grammar and syntax to convey a point.

But a linguist will kill your subtle differentiation with his standardising zeal, replacing it instead with a more frequently appearing collocation, ignoring the difference in meaning (including emphasis).

For the record, a lawyer can make similar errors, but at least he shouldn't botch the whole job, as long as he understands whatever the text is about and whatever it is supposed to achieve.

Annamaria Amik wrote:

I agree. I read legal translations written by excellent linguists with little to some legal knowledge and they were much harder to correct than average translations of lawyers. I also agree with the colleagues above in that this distinction is hard to make. Average legal skills could mean anything. Still, someone who has little idea about contracts, court decisions, the usual legal matters of companies (to mention a few of the legal stuff I'm dealing with), can never produce a satisfactory legal text if they haven't seen how this stuff works in practice.


Yes, except the pitfalls will usually be of a more linguistic character than simply the equivalence of terminology. Blunders will typically occur in the area of advanced grammar, precise syntax, consistent use of the appropriate register, sentence logic and the logic of the whole text, rather than terminology alone (or its proper understanding).

Anothing thing I find very important is that the translations of excellent linguists will contain fewer evident errors to raise red flags, which means they can still write something that sounds "deceivingly" correct and in that case, a really good lawyer should be doing the editing. Some fields are not that easy to research for outsiders.


I agree, but a lawyer who is competent and natural in the use of the legal language may very well deceive in the same manner when he fails to get a term right. If you now say that, apparently, according to me, the language would be the linguist's pitfall and the terminology the lawyer's, then I suppose you just might be right.

For an editor, I think it's easier to correct linguistic mistakes of lawyers with average language skills than to edit the wrong terminology of goods linguists. In the first case, the editing/proofreading skills are easier to acquire than in the second case in which it takes legal expertise to spot errors.


Yes, but I assure you there are enough lawyers who get their terminology wrong, making the poor editor's life even harder. It's not rare for me to find that type of issues in the Polish texts, written by Polish lawyers, often with more seniority than I've ever had in that profession, when I need to translate their stuff into English. English sources, for the record, are liable to suffer from a similar affliction.

On a more general note, I would prefer the linguist for texts targeted at the broader public and the jurist (or another expert) for texts written for professionals of the field.


Makes sense. Still, I'd generally take a good Polish lawyer with C2 English (in some cases perhaps C1 as long as the limited reportoire is used correctly and research is used to lighten up a dim comprehension) over any sort of linguist, whether for PL-EN or EN-PL. I'd probably follow a similar approach for French and German, although I don't know where I'd feature English-native lawyers fluent in the other language, who pretty much don't exist in PLEN, so I have little experience.


 


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