Today I am delighted to introduce Steven M. Kahaner, Esq., the founder and Executive Director of the legal translation agency Juriscribe, whose valuable comments some of you may have seen on this blog. Like other legal professionals that read WordstoDeeds, Steven is a lawyer who is genuinely interested in dialogue with translators and linguists. Not only that, but he is an American that builds bridges with Europe! Sorry to all those from the US out there, but you must admit that it’s not so common 😉 This is borne out, amongst other things, by his attending translation conferences (such as this one in Lisbon) and his membership in EULITA (the European Legal Interpreters and Translators Association). You can read more about Steven’s profile here.
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Legal writing in most languages has a reputation of being unnecessarily complex and cryptic; a ‘language within a language’ that requires years of study and practice experience to adequately master. Not only the layman but also those trained in the craft of legal writing and the peculiarities of legalese have often complained that legal texts – whatever their format or purpose – constitute a barrier, rather than a bridge, to comprehension and communication.
Pity the poor translator, then, who must faithfully render this text in another language, which may not have equivalents to adequately express the same concepts, and which may even favor a different style of writing.
For example, the practice of ‘elegant variation’ in legal Spanish, which encourages the use of different terms or synonyms to express the same concept, is generally anathema to a lawyer trained in the US legal system, which places great emphasis on the precise definition and consistent use of terms.
A translator of Spanish legal text into English is thus forced to decide whether to search for synonyms in English to exactly reflect the Spanish text (thus potentially confusing the English-speaking reader) or consistently use a single term that he or she hopes will best capture the meaning intended by the drafter of the original text.
Given these difficulties and the growing need to translate legal texts into other languages (often in high volumes and on extremely short notice), law firms and in-house counsel are faced with a difficult choice – either use valuable internal resources (normally the bilingual lawyers working on the matter) or outsource this work to external translators or translation agencies. There are benefits and drawbacks to both options.
The internal lawyers will be most familiar with the text in question and may have the linguistic skills and comparative law experience needed to properly translate legal text into another language, but the opportunity cost of dedicating such high-value lawyers to the work of translation is relatively high. The more sophisticated lawyers understand that translation is not an effective use of either their time or skills, while the economics of a well-run law firm or legal department should in any event discourage this from happening in all but the most high-profile of cases.
Outsourcing the work of translation to an agency or individual translator, on the other hand, has the benefit of objectively quantifying costs and potentially reducing turnaround time, but runs the risk of resulting in poor-quality translations, especially if the translators involved do not have significant legal experience.
The challenge of getting things right the first time has become even more acute as clients have become more cost sensitive and law firms have moved towards fixed pricing. A failure to factor in the best translation expertise from the outset may mean firms having to ‘swallow’ the cost of any remedial work.
However, even if the translation agency is using qualified translators and has appropriate quality control procedures in place, it is important for the lawyers to communicate as much information as possible regarding the purpose of the translation (eg, is the translation for informational purposes only, in which errors in the source text should be glossed over, or for submission to a court, in which such errors should be reflected in the target text?), and to provide any specific terminology that might not be easily accessible to parties outside of the legal case or transaction.
In the end, while the work of translation can be outsourced, it is more difficult for lawyers to externalise responsibility for the accuracy of the translation, which can only be assured through close cooperation with the translation provider and a clear communication of the lawyers’ expectations.