What exactly is a lawyer-linguist?

This post is the second in a series I have called “What exactly is…”, the first of which examined the burgeoning subject of forensic linguistics.

The topic of lawyer-linguists has been interesting me for quite some time now, and popped up again recently on Twitter with a flurry of job offers from the European Central Bank for several languages.

Although this job title seems to be relatively new, you can see a very early lawyer-linguist on the right – Cicero…

This 7-minute video by EU Careers gives an interesting insight into the work of lawyer-linguists at the European Commission. One of the speakers explains – rather vehemently I felt 😉 – that her job is not that of a translator.

However, this is only part of the picture. If you click here, you can read a flyer about working as an English-language lawyer linguist at the Court of Justice of the EU in Luxembourg, and you will see that the duties clearly and mainly include translation.

It is also not the only term – in Canada the word ‘jurilinguist‘ is used, and can be defined* as follows: “A jurilinguist provides advice related to the terminology, syntax, phraseology, organisation of ideas and style that are appropriate to legal language and, specifically, to legislative language and to the subjects dealt with, and also, within the context of bilingual co-drafted Bills and regulations, comparison services to ensure equivalency of the English and French versions.” So here we seem to be much closer to the ‘linguistics’ aspect.

As far as I can see, this seems to be a very sensitive subject too – some translation agencies promote themselves by stating that their legal translations are carried out by lawyer-linguists, thus inferring that people who are ‘only’ translators would be somehow less effective. Freelancers are also describing themselves as lawyer-linguists, where they are qualified both in the law and in translation in some way. For me, the highest quality is obtained through collaboration – whether between the client and the translator, translators and lawyers, or other experts. The more information is exchanged, both before and during translation work, the better the outcome will be.

Regarding university courses, Poitiers has been offering a Master’s program in jurilinguistics in various formats since 2001, although they don’t seem to give a clear indication of the professions taken up by alumni.

For over fifteen years, from 1999 to 2016, legal linguistics flourished at Riga Graduate School of Law (RGSL), aimed at studying “the law and the language, providing lawyers and linguists with relevant interdisciplinary knowledge in both areas”, and RGSL became very much a leader in the field. Indeed, RGSL is still the only institution in the world known to have offered a full Masters programme in Legal Linguistics (from 2007 to 2015). The expertise of the course leader remains available to any institution that might set up a new programme in the field.

To round off this post, I suppose the conclusion all goes back to bridges again. Do we have to have opposing camps? Is the best way forward a combination of both skills?

What do you think?


*Goddard, C. (2016). A voice in the wilderness? Legal linguistics in search of a place in the curriculum. RGSL Research Paper No. 12. ISSN 1691-9254

*Poirier, L. (2009, April 1-5) Whose law is it? A jurilinguistic view from the trenches. Paper presented at the CACL Conference in Hong Kong.

  • Post updated 15/02/2021, further updates to follow.

19 thoughts on “What exactly is a lawyer-linguist?

  1. Pingback: Compendium of legal translation degrees offered by universities « From Words to Deeds: translation & the law

  2. Dear Discrete (your name is nowhere to be seen although someone did mention it in a comment somewhere),

    This is an interesting topic and it’s difficult to say who is better and who is worse (as 9 times out of 10 it ends up becoming a discussion of better / worse or more qualified / less qualified, etc.).

    Having seen some blog posts from a student at one of the Master’s Degrees you recommended (City University – Rob Lunn: http://legalspaintrans.com/) I wondered if studying more would be counterproductive rather than helpful… Perhaps being a lawyer-linguist would result in such careful translations that I’d barely dare to translate a word at all and would settle for another profession altogether.
    I also believe that jurilinguist is a much more appropriate term. Why? Because not all legal professionals are lawyers as I recently pointed out to some Spanish lawyer-linguists (R. Gámez: http://traduccionjuridica.es/8-preguntas-sobre-la-traduccion-juridica) who have a blog on legal translation.

    Look at notaries, for instance. It is perfectly possible to qualify as a notary public in England and Wales (with a two-year postgraduate diploma from the University of Cambridge) without a law degree at all. You need *courses* but you don’t need a law degree (or even the CPE) as such and you certainly don’t need to be a lawyer.

    Nor do you need to be a lawyer to be a paralegal, a legal executive, a conveyancer, a registrar… There are plenty of legal professions where “being a lawyer” is not a prerequisite at all so I don’t see why it’s suddenly got into many heads (even translators’ heads) that you need to be a lawyer to be a legal translator. You need legal training but the sort of training offered to lawyers may not be interesting at all. You’d be better off studying at the Institute of Legal Executives, or doing a Paralegals course, or even studying to be a notary (as there is some overlap between official / certified /sworn translators and notarial duties and documents) but I can’t see the point in a law degree.

    I did a year of a law degree and didn’t find it helpful as none of it was related to translation. That’s why I decided it wasn’t for me because I spent a lot of time writing up essays on solutions to cases and what I need to do is to compare legislation and legal systems.

    Another issue is that there are multiple areas in legal translation. Not everyone works with documents relating to criminal or procedural law, i.e. courts. In fact most legal translation does not relate to courts, claims and cases at all. Most of the legal translations sent to us (about 80 to 90%) are: contracts, deeds, bylaws and articles of association and other commercial documents.

    That’s my “two cents” on the issue! Thanks for the interesting post. It’s great to find blogs on legal translation.

    Leon Hunter

    • Dear Leon,
      Thank you for such a thought-provoking comment. Yes, I do like to keep myself in the background! 🙂 I think your point about lawyers/legal professionals is a really valid one. That is indeed why I have the blog’s banner the way it is, even at the risk of being wordy. Regarding your comment about needing to compare legislation and legal systems, I find it very interesting that the academic field that should offer us the most (‘comparative law’) is so reluctant to get ‘down and dirty’ with translators. And of course your point about the areas of law is really important for those running legal translation courses to take into account in their curricula – we can see that some do and some don’t.
      And lastly, very glad you like the blog!

    • @ Leon Hunter

      Dear Leon

      Your point about the qualifications of notaries, paralegals, etc. is well made but does not apply where the translation of court-related documents is concerned nor, to a lesser extent, in the translation of contracts or in international law.

      Pleadings, judgements, notices of appeal, etc., usually contain highly specialised language and usage which translators without experience as practising lawyers struggle to translate accurately (e.g. the French legal term ‘moyen’).

      Similarly, specialist legal terminology and doctrine is often used or referred to in contracts (e.g. ‘privity of contract’, ‘frustration of contract’, ‘invitation to treat’, etc.) and in international law (e.g. ‘res judicata’, ‘forum conveniens’, etc.).

      As an example of non-lawyers miss-translating everyday legal terminology, I frequently see the term ‘Article’ or ‘Articolo’ in a French or Italian contract translated as ‘Article’ in English. ‘Article’ in English is prescriptive in nature and therefore should only be used in laws, statutes, international conventions, articles of association or in the rules of a club or association. The correct term in English for the divisions or sub-divisions of a contract or agreement (a document which, by definition, is consensual rather than a prescriptive in nature) is ‘Clause’. Any competent solicitor or barrister will confirm this, so why do translators perpetuate the mistake?

      Finally, where the target language is concerned, there are some fundamental differences in terminology and doctrine between English and American law, for example in the definition of ‘equitable estoppel’, which a translator without formal legal training would have difficulty taking into account correctly.

      All the best


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  5. Hi,
    I found your post very intereting but not mentioning another segment of our market, less sexy, the step child of the legal industry and where a lot, a lot of money is being made, document review. That is a field I work in. Almost always requires licensed attorneys and if foreign companies are involved also language skills. It is as interesting as it sounds – you review documents during the discovery phase, which may be millions of documents and can go on for years, and as a linguist render anything from an actual translation to a summary of content.I know civil law jurisdictions do not have this process but more and more of these reviews are being handled in Europe. I myself just worked in Paris, others I know in London, Zurich, Brussels, Tokyo, Shanghai and Hyderabat. It may be new to the European market but there is another Lawyer-Linguist on the EU horizone and the reviews are increasing in numbers.

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  9. Great post, congrats to the author!

    Based on some of the comments, I think it’s important to make one distinction: lawyer-linguists are not necessarily legal translators. I provide legal-linguistic services for the UN and certain governments, and legal translation services for everyone else; and they are two independent and quite different services.

    L&L is much closer to linguistic consulting than translation, and requires assessing and advising on international law, comparative law, etc. We match local legal systems to international systems to assess compliance with international standards. It’s a different type of service. Your clients are usually key players in the international arena, mainly governments, international organizations, and other non-state actors. This explains why that one linguist in the video you shared was so insistent on the fact that what L&Ls do is not translation.

    One of the best examples in the UN framework of L&L is during Universal Periodic Reviews, where States Parties to different treaties report to the UN. That’s where L&Ls –and not legal translators– come in and it’s the most exciting work! Throughout the rest of the year, what we do is mostly translation though.

  10. Dear Colleagues,

    Lawyer-linguist are professionals with a law degree and a degree in translation. Persons with a law degree know law, persons with a translation degree know how to traslate sentences in law. If you have a law degree in your mother country, you will know how to properly word your sentences in law.

    Translation is another cup of tea. You use dictionaries to find expressions and terms you do not know, but no dictionary will explain how to use these terms in the target language as native (UK and US) professionals (attorneys, lawyers, judges, etc) do.

    Often translations have a feeling of the source language, which will make the target legal text sound unnatural, The reader will just say: “What? We do no speak and write like that!” That is where the credibility of the translation or your other legal text in the target language is put at risk, become doubtful. The point is that we need to write our sentences in law as native professionals do, in other words, we need to write authentic sentences that sound natural. How can we attain this level of profiency in legal English?

    We should know how to properly use legal terms grammatically, what terms are in various practice areas, we should know the practice areas themselves in the target language, we should be able to convey our message as natives do. Nothing less suffice. Anything below that secondary in terms of quality.

    May I suggest to you a book, a masterly one, as acknowledged by an Oxford Law Professor, which has been proofread by a US expert in law and linguistics (Yale) that addresses this very need? Please take a look at it and by the end of your studies in law in your mother language, you will be an expert in legal English also. Here is the link: https://englishforlaw.info

    Kind regards
    legal terminologist, certified translator in law, having completed a law course at the University of London

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  12. I am doing translations of Quebec notarial documents from French to English for genealogical purposes. Do you have a suggestion of a good French/English dictionary of notarial terms that is relevant for Quebec?

    • Dear Deborah,
      Thank you for your question. May I suggest that you ask this question through the Twitter feed (@wordstodeeds), if you are on Twitter, as this would allow me to retweet and potentially get you the best suggestions from our community in Québec? Otherwise I can tweet directly and inform you of any replies.

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