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The History Of Legal Translation And Its Changing Roles

Legal Translation

We look at the history of legal translation and how this has changed over time to discover the ways in which the roles of the legal translator have altered as society has evolved.

This role underwent several key changes and did not remain static until it arrived in its current form.

How legal texts are translated has important implications for how the law is practiced.

Strict Literal Translation

The very first translation rule applying to legal documents that were codified came from Emperor Justinian in Rome. He enforced Latin as the language to be used for law literature and only permitted translations of legal writings and thinking into Greek. Additionally, such translations had to be performed word for word.

The close connection between state and religion saw the same practice in the translation of biblical texts, which, it was believed, would lose power if not done word for word.

These obscure translations failed to portray the underlying meaning of the original text.

Strict Literal Translation

Literal Translation

At the end of the Middle Ages, Latin was the accepted international language. However, this was challenged by France, which had the cultural, artistic, and military power to make good on its intent. Subsequently, the French dominated in the global arena.

This saw a shift from strict literal translation too literal translation. The growing consensus was that a translation still needs to respect the grammatical rules of the target language. Thus, translations were undertaken in context as opposed to word for word. This can be seen in the translation of Code Napoleon (or French Civil Code).

The Importance of the Target Language

The next stage, which progressed gradually, and was much influenced by 19th-century hermeneutics, was for the translated text to make sense in the target language. Thus, the emphasis was on translating a text from e.g., Latin into good Spanish, English, etc.

Legal practitioners and translators became concerned with the ability to grasp the meaning accurately in the target language. The rules of the target language acquired practical significance in translation works.

Target Language

Debate Over the Letter of the Law Versus the Spirit of the Law

The Swiss Civil Code was at the heart of the debate between the letter of the law as opposed to the spirit of the law. This text was translated from German into French and Italian. Two conflicting groups, the Traditionalists and those who disagreed with them, argued their views on the correct way to translate the text.

According to the Traditionalists, the Italian and French translations of the Swiss Civil Code had to adhere to the German text as narrowly as possible. They still favored a form of a literal translation. This was, in their opinion, the only way to remain faithful to the original text.

Additionally, legal statutes and codes required literal translation that adhered strictly to the grammar and syntax of the source text. Exceptions should be limited to essential instances and only judges had the right to interpretation.

The second group opposing the Traditionalists contended that the original and target languages had equal status. Therefore, translations should proceed in the spirit of the latter. The result of a translation should not differ from the essence of the source text. It did not make sense to simply translate words.

From being a middleman between readers of text and the source text, the 20th century saw this role evolve to where the translator acquired actual responsibility beyond the fidelity of words and started to achieve linguistic independence.

This role moved from being passive to actively engaging with a source text and rendering its true meaning in the target language. Whereas in the past, the translator was viewed as a source of possible contamination of text, it now became expected of them to convey the spirit of a piece. This was a far cry from fulfilling the mere duty of transcribing words and accepting no real role in how they would be understood.

The balance had shifted from the purity of the source language to allegiance to the target language. The translator was no longer a basic translating machine but an active participant in conveying meaning.

Another major change was that the translator now had to have a fuller grasp of the original text. This meant understanding it in its cultural context, having greater knowledge of the idiosyncrasies of the source language, and an improved ability to arrive at its original meaning and what it intended to convey.

This transforms the legal translator into a co-drafter of the law. This has important implications for both translation and the law.

Legal Translators

The Bilingual Legislative System of Hong Kong

Originally, English was the language of choice for the translation of Hong Kong legal texts. This was despite most of these citizens being primarily Chinese-speaking. This excluded the majority of the population from access to legal texts.

In 1974, the Hong Kong government gave under pressure and gave Chinese official language status. In 1986, the big work of translating over 20,000 pages of statutes into Chinese began.

According to the Bilingual Legislative System of Hong Kong, both sets of texts hold equal weight in the eyes of the law. 

The system was not without problems, chief of which was a lack of Chinese words to match some of the original texts’ words and concepts. This was solved by creating neologisms. This is an example of co-drafting, as carried out by translators specializing in Chinese translation.

Nowadays, people requiring accurate legal translations into Chinese can rely on professional organizations of translators such as these Chinese translation services by Rosetta Translation.

The history of translation is a fascinating one. It is interesting to note that, as translators moved away from word-by-word translations from an original language source into another language, the resultant translation in the target language was more accurate and less obscure.

For example, when the target language is seen to belong to an inferior culture, the source language culture came to dominate the translation and creeps into the weaker culture. Once the target language was seen to hold equal cultural rights, the emphasis on cultural aspects fades into the background and the pure legal implications of the original text can come to the fore.


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