Reporting from Canterbury – Part 1

Today I offer you my report on the conference “Comparative Law: Engaging Translation” that took place at Kent Law School, Canterbury, UK from 21-22 June 2012.

The conference brought together many highly eminent speakers, and included a host of different perspectives and disciplines.

The conference’s main assumption was that “the question of comparative law is through and through one of translation”.

As usual, space unfortunately does not allow me to include every presentation, so this is my subjective selection of subjects that I hope will be of interest to readers. Full proceedings are to be published, and I will post an update when they are available.

Prof. Michael Cronin, Dublin City University

Translation in a Digital Age

In a wide-ranging and engrossing keynote, Professor Cronin talked about relationships between translators and their tools (especially automation), implications for translatability, and consequences on comparative law and translation.

First he gave us an overview of translation studies, seeing the subject in three main ‘turns’ from its inception – the ‘decoding’ or linguistics turn, followed by the cultural turn, and now the ‘technological‘ turn. He looked at anthropological changes in society: from the first printing press to digital books, from standalone computing to the cloud, and from the monodirectional quality of information to the interactive quality it has today.

Cronin then discussed changes in translation – from “prosumption” (production+consumption) to “post-print literacy” (referring to shifts in ability to sustain reading and in legibility levels), and now to a “re-humanization” of translation. He held that the dehumanizing effect of machine translation and automation was only part of the story, that there is a human reappropriation of the translation process – citing volunteer and ‘citizen’ translation as examples. Cronin concluded with the concept of “chronodiversity” whereby different types of translation require different levels of time investment – this clearly has implications for legal texts where some may be translated only for gist, where others require much more intensive labours.

Prof. Kwai Ng, University of California, San Diego

Legal Translation and the Problem of Heteroglossia

Professor Ng talked about legal translation and heteroglossia (the presence of ‘other languages’). As a sociologist, he has been studying language and law “from the perspective of a lesser discipline“(!). First, he outlined three traditional premises of legal translation: that it is a ‘bridge’ and thus facilitates undistorted conversions of legal concepts across or within jurisdictions; that legal translation is textual (thus excluding for example court interpreting or the translation of (oral) customary law into text); and the centrality of the concept of equivalence or ‘equality’.

In particular, he focused on equivalence, listing the various types: semantic equivalence, stylistic equivalence, formal equivalence or legal equivalence. He questioned whether equivalence was too “source-centric” – using A to judge the validity of B and asked whether the very concept itself was inherently biased.

Professor Ng is putting forward (paper forthcoming) the concept of “interpretive autonomy” as an alternative to equivalence. Key points: “legal translation is about ceding interpretive power from the source language to the target language” and “interpretive autonomy is about how independently a translated legal instrument can stand on its own in the new linguistic environment of the target language“. We saw how interpretive autonomy increases in a cline from borrowings, through neologisms, literal translation, transcoding, and idiomatic translation to, ultimately, co-drafting. From my perspective as a practicing legal translator, Prof. Ng’s proposed concept sounds like an excellent way to finally reconcile translation theory and practice – at least in the legal domain.

Prof. Anne Lise Kjaer, University of Copenhagen

Autonomous concepts in European law: The end of comparative law and translation?

The Court of Justice of the European Union and the European Court of Human Rights have developed a theory of autonomous concepts – that are independent from their domestic siblings and essentially, from language. If successful, this could eliminate the need either for comparative law or for translation. Professor Kjaer discussed the feasibility and practicability of the above coming to pass. Firstly she stressed that stating autonomy does not necessarily result in autonomy, secondly that national languages are mutually divergent, and third, that European discourse is increasingly self-refential and conducted in international legal English.

Professor Kjaer described the impossibility of a common European language but pointed out that a common discourse may not be impossible. She underlined the fact that diversity is an asset and should be protected. However, she held that linguistic diversity can be handled; that people who communicate basically want interaction to be successful and strive to understand each other; and that understanding is always subject to interpretation even if the language is the same. She concluded that what really matters is not how linguistic barriers are crossed and how mutual understanding is achieved, but that efforts to meet these objectives are done in full awareness of the difficulties and with the utmost respect for different outlooks.

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You might also be interested in Part 2 of this conference report.

12 thoughts on “Reporting from Canterbury – Part 1

  1. Thank you for such a detailed report! I regret that I missed this conference; it sounds very interesting! It’s good to have someone like you to report back!

  2. Pingback: Reporting from Canterbury – Part 2 « From Words to Deeds: translation & the law

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  6. Pingback: Reporting from Canterbury – Part 3 « From Words to Deeds: translation & the law

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