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Translation and the law

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Dr James Hadley, researcher in translation/translingual studies at the School of Advanced Study, gives a taster of a ground-breaking new project on the world of legal translation that is bringing together the expertise of the Institute of Modern Languages Research and the Institute of Advanced Legal Studies.

Law is something that underpins everything we do in the present day. From the ways in which we buy and sell things to how we move around, law shapes every aspect of our lives. However, laws are not static, and while they are ubiquitous, they are far from uniform.

Legal systems, traditions, structures, and terms vary fundamentally around the globe, and even within Europe, the common law system that characterises the English system, is unusual. So what happens when laws and legal documents need to be translated from one language to another? How do we bridge the gaps between not only the different languages at work, but also the radically different understandings of what a law is and how it functions?

The Institute of Modern Languages Research (IMLR), in partnership with the Institute of Advanced Legal Studies (IALS) has just begun a new project aimed at exploring some of these key questions. We want to know who is qualified to translate legal documents, how they are assessed, and what issues may be associated with reading translations of legal documents.

It might be tempting to assume that the translation of legal documents is something that occurs relatively rarely. However, when we start to think about jurisdictions such as Canada, Hong Kong, and Switzerland, each of which has more than one official language, and is required to make laws equally available in each, we start to see that legal translation occurs all the time.

In these contexts, translated laws carry the same legal force as the laws they have been translated from, so they function precisely in the same way as the laws they have been translated from. This approach reaches its extreme, perhaps, in contexts such as the EU, in which new legislation is required to be published synchronously in all 23 of the EU’s official languages, each of which is considered to be of equal standing.

However, the intention of creating a law with equivalent force in another language is not the only reason legal documents might be translated between languages. Such documents are very frequently translated in response to particular issues. The directors of a company that begins trading in another country may require large numbers of legal documents to be translated, simply to understand the regulations under which they will be required to work. Similarly, individuals living abroad very often require legal documentation to be translated in order to allow them to buy a house, accept a job, or simply to understand their rights in the new culture.

As anyone who has ever needed to wade through a contract will know, legal documents are written in their own language, sometimes called legalese. Thus, even if a legal document is English, and you speak the language, it is not necessarily the case that you will understand everything that is written in it. That being the case, and legal traditions around the world being so variable, it is easy to see how translating legal documents from one language to another would be no mean feat. Even if you do happen to speak both languages, you also need to understand, and be able to reproduce the respective forms of legalese with an extremely high degree of technical accuracy.

We at the School of Advanced Study are interested in all aspects of legal translation. Over the coming years, we are planning a series of projects that will explore the particular idiosyncrasies, issues, and problems associated with translating laws and legal documents. Keep an eye on the websites of the two institutes (IALS and IMLR) for a whole series of events and developments in which we will look forward to sharing our interest in this theme with you.

Dr James Hadley is an early career researcher at the Institute of Modern Languages Research. He is interested in the ways that translation theory has been used, and even more interested in the ways that it has not been used. To date, much of his research has focused on translation in under-researched contexts, such as Japan, and medieval Europe. He is currently completing two projects, one on indirect translations or translations of translations, and the other on the phenomenon of celebrity translators in the Meiji period Japanese context. His next project will be an ambitious survey of the use and generation of translation theory today.

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