‘Lost in Translation’ – The Challenges with Modern Legal Terminology.

Despite being an incredibly interesting career, teaching Legal English presents certain challenges which need to be solved before the subject can be tackled effectively.

As I mentioned in a former blog on this topic, one problem is in the aspect of so-called ‘literal’ translation. Often, it is impracticable to accurately describe a continental legal system in English legal language, which has emanated from the roots of vastly disparate legal system to that of the continent.

Additionally, there is a wider issue at stake in the debate on accuracy. In the Netherlands, for example, even the institutional structure of the legal profession is vastly different to, for example, the UK or the USA. How can one find an accurate description when likely, equally fitting terminology does not exist? How does one describe their own job function when institutional structure differs from country to country? Even professional linguists & bi-linguists fall short of this task and bearing in mind its enormity, this hardly comes as a suprise.

As an example, ‘The Netherlands Public Prosecution Service’ sounds to UK legal eagles like an equivalent of our ‘Crown Prosecution Service.’ Regarding both institutional function and the individual job roles within, this is inaccurate. Further description is necessary to make the differences clear. Similarly, ‘Officier van Justitie’ is often rather blandly translated as ‘Public Prosecutor’, a rather bare description of the dual function the Dutch Officier van Justitie performs, of which only one part is to act as a Prosecutor.

Other pertinent examples act as further illustration. A ‘jurist’ is a frequently used word in the Netherlands and is often translated as ‘lawyer’. Aside from issues of potential liability that could arise from a linguistic error of this nature, the translation is incorrect. The Oxford Dictionary of Law (OUP) does not even include the word but various online dictionaries do cite along the lines of “A person with thorough knowledge of the law, especially a Judge.” The first part of this definition is closer in accuracy to how the Dutch tend to use the word ‘jurist’ in their native tongue but to translate to the English word of ‘lawyer’ is mind-blowingly incorrect.

This common confusion arises for several reasons. Firstly, both ‘lawyer’ & ‘jurist’ in English have predominantly generic definitions. A lawyer in the UK is either a ‘solicitor’ or a barrister’ but obviously, a lawyer is also a jurist!  This is further complicated by definitions given in both the Oxford & Van Dalen dictionaries. A ‘lawyer’ is defined as both a person who is qualified to represent clients in court and someone with superior knowledge of the law.  In the UK, this is not entirely accurate because in practice, the word ‘lawyer’ is only used to refer to that of one legally qualified to act for clients in court, the Dutch equivalent of the ‘advocaat’.

Dutch clients often comment that ‘juridical’ English is difficult, a likely translation from the the word ‘juridisch’. The definition of ‘juridical’ in the Oxford Dictionary of Law is “Relating to judicial proceedings or the law. Juridical days were days on which legal business could be transacted.” The correct terminology is ‘legal’ English.

As demonstrated above, translating one legal system into another by making a ‘literal language swap’ does not often produce an adequate linguistic solution. Even a seemingly insignificant alteration may result in far better linguistic clarity. Just exchanging the more specific ‘Service’ for the broader choice of ‘Agency’ may present the key to avoiding confusion when working with other countries on cross-jurisdictional matters.

Moreover, wider knowledge on both legal systems and the linguistic differences are required to find a fitting solution to this frequently exasperating linguistic problem. In my view, the only option is in ‘legal language collaboration’: discussion & evaluation of terminology by legal professionals from the two languages concerned.  Otherwise, ‘cross-jurisdictional’ may become ‘cross-communication!’

Here at TalenInstituut Nederland (The Dutch Language Institute) we understand the needs that companies face as well as the fears individual learners feel. This is why we offer flexible, fully customised Business (and Legal) language courses to businesses and individuals. Through a process of interviews and meetings we establish the unique needs and competence of our clients and design each and every course around those. To find out more about our Business and Legal Language courses, visit the main body of our website and ask us for a quote: www.taleninstituut.nl

© Taleninstinuut Nederland

Victoria Laws
Senior Trainer Legal English

Tevreden deelnemers en opdrachtgevers, daar doen wij het allemaal voor. Bijzonder blij zijn wij dan ook met feedback van tevreden klanten zoals deze van Hugo Klein van het Openbaar Ministerie.

Foto: Vrouwe Justitia van Elselien van der Graaf, Rechtbank Utrecht
Fotograaf: Jeroen Docter