Legislation – translating in a vacuum

Today I would like to present a guest post from Rob Lunn, an English legal translator working in Spain. Rob blogs over at Legally Yours from Spain, and in particular has shared his experience about studying for City University London’s legal translation MA. The post was originally published on Rob’s blog in a slightly different form.


The Spanish Ministry of Justice has made English and French translations of some Spanish legislation available on this page. While this is obviously great for making the Spanish legal system more accessible to foreigners, these translations are also a useful resource for legal translators, both as a starting point for researching terminology and also to get a second reading of the legislation.

Different translators and maybe different approaches

It’s worth noting that the translations have not all been done by the same translator. You can see this because the agency or translator is stated at the beginning of the translation, but it also becomes apparent on reading just a few lines. The first thing I noticed was that one text in particular had a lot more typos than the others. And while this is just a matter of the translation process (which evidently didn’t include enough proofreading!), when you go a little deeper, you also find differences that might indicate different translation approaches.

What type of legal translation?

It would be nice to know what criteria the translators were given, if any, for translating the legislation. It needed to be translated from Spanish into English, but what type of English? Legal English, of course, or maybe not. If the purpose of a translation is to inform, which it probably is in this case, there could be an argument for trying to use as much non-legal and neutral language as possible to make it more accessible. This would be quite difficult in practice, but even if you did use this approach, at some point you’d still have to make a decision as to what type of legal terminology to use for the legal concepts.

Apart from the choice of using terminology from the US or England and Wales, both common law systems, you also have the option of using terminology from English-speaking civil law or mixed systems, such as Scotland or Louisiana. There is also the option of keeping it as literal as possible except for universal concepts. This might end up being a bit like making it as non-legal as possible, and may have the disadvantage that it might not be understandable to anyone, least of all to foreign lawyers, who may be the only people actually interested in the translated legislation (apart from legal translators of course!), which probably gets pretty close to defeating the purpose.

Translating in a vacuum

There are advantages and disadvantages to each of these approaches. The interesting thing here, though, is that you have a far wider choice than you do for say translating a supply contract for an English law firm, in which case you really only have one option: to keep the register legal and use terminology from England and Wales. (That is, of course, until you come across a term that has no acceptable equivalent in common law. But that is a whole other story.) And while legal documents are often translated to be used in a foreign jurisdiction, legal translators, especially into-English legal translators, are also asked to translate documents into English for use in the country of origin (e.g., contracts for companies that deal with foreigners, documents for the EU).

So, this dilemma of having to choose what legal language to use does come up, and it is something that needs to be taken into account by both the outsourcer and the translator. Where this decision is left to you as the translator, this would probably mean translating into the legal language of the jurisdiction that you normally do, being careful to not unnecessarily use terms from other systems. And while you’d probably turn down jobs that are specifically for other legal systems, it would be an interesting challenge to try to translate into a “neutral”, international or European legal English. Although a true neutral legal translation would probably be impossible to achieve as you’d always have to base it on one particular native English system, be that common or civil, or UK or US based, which is what seems to end up happening in most cases. If not, where would you get the terminology from? Bar inventing it.

So what approach was used in these official* legal translations?

As might be expected given that the translations were done by different translators, the approach does not appear to be consistent across all the documents or, in some cases, even within the documents.

US terminology is mixed with UK terminology. “Attorney” and “articles of incorporation” (US) are used for abogado and estatuos sociales on some occasions while “solicitor” and “articles of association” (UK) are used on others; “lawyer” is also used. Interestingly enough, the always troublesome procurador is translated both as “court representative” and “Court Clerk”. (I prefer the first one, although “court procedural representative/lawyer” might be better.)

In terms of common or civil law, there does seem to be a greater use of common law terms. For instance, demanda de reconvención is translated as “counterclaim” instead of “reconventional demand”, which is used in civil law English-speaking jurisdictions.

An interesting one is legitimización activa. This is generally referred to as “standing to sue/claim/etc.” in common law, and while “standing to request review” or just “standing” might be good (common law) options in this particular case (Art. 511), it is translated as “active legitimation” (actually, “legitimisation”, but I assume that’s a typo), which could fall into the literal or civil law approach to translating terms. Although I’m not sure about this one; maybe it’s also used in common law jurisdictions. It might even be, or become, an example of an international- or at least European-English term.


Anyway, it’s not my aim to pick apart the translations here. I just wanted to give a few examples that might demonstrate different approaches. And it does look like different approaches were used, although in an ad hoc manner. It seems that, on this occasion, the translators may not have been given criteria to follow. They were probably left to translate as they best saw fit in a vacuum. Given the probable purpose of the texts, to inform, this might not be such a big deal. As for legal translators using these documents for terminology research, it just means that some caution needs to be exercised. But, then again, when is it not?


As someone rightly points out in the comments to my original post, these are not official translations in the sense that they are not sworn translations. However, I refer to them as ‘official’ because they appear to be officially endorsed: they can be downloaded from the Ministry of Justice’s website, and each bear the Spanish government’s coat of arms on the front cover.



I’d love to hear your comments about Rob’s post. How much information is given to translators before they start work is a subject that is very dear to my heart.

5 thoughts on “Legislation – translating in a vacuum

  1. Very interesting post. I too have serious problems with what are called ‘official’ English translations of legislation (DE>EN in my case). I believe a German lawyer has to be involved, but I suspect it’s all in a legal limbo. I am worried that some clients may insist on these translations, and it’s certainly started happening. I could go on for pages!

  2. Pingback: Reporting from Brussels – Translation Studies Days, part 2 « From Words to Deeds: translation & the law

  3. Pingback: Weekly favorites (Oct 8-14) | Adventures in Freelance Translation

  4. Pingback: Monday smile – From Anglo-Saxon to globish | From Words to Deeds: translation & the law

  5. Pingback: Webinar – Translating contracts in English | From Words to Deeds: translation & the law

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.