Volume 9, No. 3 
July 2005

Michael Trittipo


Front Page

Select one of the previous 32 issues.


Index 1997-2005

TJ Interactive: Translation Journal Blog

  Translator Profiles
From Tulip Grower to Translator: An Unlikely Profile
by Robert Croese

  The Profession
The Bottom Line
by Fire Ant & Worker Bee

  TJ Cartoon
Great Moments in Languages: One Man's Dove Is Another Man's Pigeon
by Ted Crump

  Translators Around the World
Intellectual Property and Copyright: The case of translators
by Lenita M. R. Esteves, Ph.D.

  Translation and Politics
On Censorship: A Conversation with Ilan Stavans
by Verónica Albin
Translation and Censorship in European Environments
by Antonia Keratsa

  Book Review
Legal Translation and the Dictionary by Marta Chromá
Reviewed by Michael Trittipo
Guaraní Dictionary
Reviewed by Robert Croese
Revelations of a Case Style in a Vehicular Accident Lawsuit
by Josef F. Buenker and Diane E. Teichman
Emotional and Psychological Effects on Interpreters in Public Services—A Critical Factor to Bear in Mind
by Carmen Valero-Garcés
La interpretación de congresos de medicina: formación y profesión
Lucía Ruiz Rosendo

  Literary Translation
Translation & Rainfall
by Alireza Yazdunpanuh
Übersetzen als Neuschreiben: die Macht des Übersetzers
Dr. Charlotte Frei

  Legal Translation
Traduzione giuridica e «Legal English»
Lorenzo Fiorito

  Translator Education
Parallelism between Language Learning and Translation
by Dr. Kulwindr Kaur a/p Gurdial Singh
On Teaching Forms of Address in Translation
by Agnieszka Szarkowska

  Translators' Tools
Translators’ Emporium
Using a Specialized Corpus to Improve Translation Quality
by Michael Wilkinson
Design and Development of Translator's Workbench for English to Indian Languages
by Akshi Kumar

  Caught in the Web
Web Surfing for Fun and Profit
by Cathy Flick, Ph.D.
Translators’ On-Line Resources
by Gabe Bokor
Translators’ Best Websites
by Gabe Bokor

Translators’ Events

Call for Papers and Editorial Policies
  Translation Journal

Book Review


Legal Translation and the Dictionary

by Marta Chromá

Reviewed by Michael Trittipo

Legal Translation and the Dictionary
Marta Chromá
Lexicographica Series Maior No. 122
Max Niemeyer Verlag
ISBN 3-484-39122-7

ranslators into English from most major languages generally can count on having reasonably good bilingual dictionaries for the general language, and even in many specialized domains such as science, medicine, or law. But most such languages have several million native speakers, often in multiple countries, and often many non-native speakers. Such numbers represent good markets for dictionaries, even specialized ones.

For languages with "only" a few million native speakers, mostly in a single country, the smaller market may limit the making of bilingual dictionaries, especially in specialized domains, and certainly limits where they are sold. The only Slovak-English dictionary in United States bookstores is a mere typescript list of simplistic "equivalents" in which "leaf," for example, is only a noun, never a verb; and designates something existing only on plants, not in extension tables.

Czech, with ten million speakers, has fared relatively well in dictionary availability. A buyer even has a choice among competing general-language Czech-English and English-Czech dictionaries. But even for Czech, until recently there were no Czech-English dictionaries for law beyond simple word lists.

That gap was recently addressed by the Česko-anglický právnický slovník s vysvětlivkami (Czech-to-English Legal Dictionary with Explanations), by Marta Chromá, professor in the foreign language department of the Charles University Law School in Prague. "With explanations" refers to a decision Chromá made based on her assessment that most of its users would have no education in either legal system, and that many would lack monolingual reference materials to help them either fully appreciate a source term's typical haunts or implications, or be confident of the authenticity of a suggested target term. To provide a substitute on at least a "first aid" basis, without creating full technical definitions or full encyclopedic treatment, she added "explanations"—sometimes examples, sometimes context indicators, sometimes synonyms.

This review is not of that dictionary, however. Rather, this review is of Chromá's book about her work creating it as a team of one: Legal Translation and the Dictionary. Its trim eighty B5 (17 cm x 24 cm) pages cover a surprising amount of ground, ranging from the abstract (competing theories of translation as applied to legal texts, what is a "term," and why "language for a special purpose" like law is more than "terminology") to the concrete (specific legal terms often mistranslated, recommended translations, and statutory citation forms, as well as numerous quoted entries from the dictionary itself showing its design).

The dual scope of the book's coverage reflects Chromá's purpose in writing it. She wanted "to share [her] experience with others who may be contemplating doing similar work involving their native (not widely spoken) language and law on the one hand and English and Anglo-American systems of law on the other." So in principle the book is not so much about the particularities of Czech to English legal translation as it is about making dictionaries to help translate legal texts from the legal system of any language of limited diffusion into English: "outlining basic aspects and features of linguistics and law that were dealt with in the course of the dictionary as well as lexicographical approaches towards some more complex problems."

In practice, of course, Chromá draws her examples from the specifics of Czech-to-English legal translation. So the book has two main audiences. One is defined by language and subject matter: translators working in that language pair and direction and focused on legal translation will be interested in her specific examples. The other is defined by activity: would-be creators of legal dictionaries for other languages of limited diffusion may benefit from Chromá's discussion of some of the issues peculiar to legal translation and lexicography, in particular the need to help bridge not just different languages but different legal taxonomies.

Certainly similar issues exist translating (or creating dictionaries to aid translating) between the special languages of any two legal systems, say French and U.S. legalese. But with larger markets come more resources, even whole lexicographic teams, whereas Chromá had no team, and is conscious of the constraints facing would-be creators of legal dictionaries for other LLDs. One constraint could be the time needed to research translation and lexicographic theory. Simply by providing an outline of such theory, even though only as to "basic aspects," Legal Translation and the Dictionary should help workers in other LLDs.

Chromá notes that independently of an author's own time and skill, "the feasibility of ... a lexicographic project [is also] confined [by] ... the publisher's policy and the potential of the relevant market." In particular,

[A] bilingual special-purpose dictionary where one of the languages is minor and relevant to a small territory thus addressing a limited number of potential users, sometimes induces publishers to reduce the costs of publication as much as possible; as a result, the dictionary becomes a two-column alphabetically arranged list of isolated source language terms and their (isolated) target language equivalents providing insufficient context ....

Chromá's implicit criticism of such simplistic lists is clear. Her own CELDE contains entries more like the following excerpt:

návrh petition formal application in writing made to a court, motion written or oral application to court for ruling or order; bill proposed legislation; offer, suggestion; proposal ... ; ~ na odročení zasedání parlamentu motion to adjourn a session of Parliament ... ; ~ na přibrání tlumočníka motion to engage an interpreter; ... .

(Color added for clarity on screen; size variations in original.) The text in smaller characters (bold and purple about the source Czech, regular and blue about the target English) is what Chromá calls "explanations"—sometimes definitions, sometimes limiting or illustrative context. As the excerpt shows, the entry includes implicit (but repeated) reminders to a user that the Czech structure "na (=for) + gerund + genitive" can often be translated in English by "infinitive + accusative" rather than by mirroring the original grammatical classes.

This entry goes on for four columns, far beyond a one-line "návrh = suggestion, proposal" entry. Indeed, for a native anglophone lawyer, the four columns of the entry for "návrh" look too repetitive; more like a mere laundry list than the kind of help the reviewer usually seeks. But there is a reason: the dictionary was not planned around the kinds of needs I have as an anglophone lawyer; it was planned around the anticipated needs of other kinds of users.

Legal Translation and the Dictionary explains that the dictionary was not written in the abstract or with the idea of serving all users. Rather, it began with definition of typical users and their characteristics. Indeed, characterizing the likely or desired users of a dictionary—and thus their needs so as to try to anticipate and meet them in advance—is a task that Chromá insists should come first. "The definition of the user group is ... one of the most influential factors ... ." "[T]o consider the potential users of the dictionary is of extreme importance at as early as the preparatory stage of writing any [bilingual dictionary], and the more so in the case of a bilingual special purpose dictionary."

Chromá describes how anticipating users' likely gaps in experience or lack of other resources led her to try to make the CELDE a substitute for encyclopedic monolingual reference works that the "ideal" translator might be expected to consult instead, not only for terminology but also for typical phrasing. "[R]eaders [i.e., the dictionary's anticipated users] are unfamiliar with the common associative patterns of the [target] language ... ." Having multiple examples showing that "na + verbal noun" (optionally plus a genitive) can often be transformed into verb's infinitive (and optionally an accusative), reflects a prediction—no doubt accurate, as it was also the intention—that most users of the dictionary will be Czechs translating out of their native language, not anglophones translating into theirs (and an appreciation that almost no one has a production vocabulary in an L2 as great as their recognition vocabulary in an L1).

So when Chromá discusses the difference between decoding and encoding (comprehension-aiding or L2-L1 and production-aiding or L1-L2) dictionaries and the efficiency of dictionaries for each activity, the discussion is not "mere" theory. Rather, she ties it to the decision to focus the dictionary on helping Czech speakers to produce (encode) texts in English as an L2, with no serious anticipation that many anglophone users might use it to decode the Czech source. "[W]e tried to include clauses and even whole sentences as exemplification in many entries so that the translator consulting the dictionary may get a certain degree of orientation in the target language sentence patterns."

For would-be creators of legal dictionaries for translating from LLDs to English, the bottom line lesson to be drawn from Legal Translation and the Dictionary might be stated as being to find efficient compromises and to remember that the ultimate responsibility is the translator's. Although some writers argue that "bilingual dictionaries 'for the foreign reader need to be encyclopaedic in scope and provide ... contextual explanation of legal concepts ...,'" Chromá replies that "it should be admitted ...that any bilingual dictionary for specific purposes can serve only as a first aid ...."

In the course of the book's eighty pages, of course, Chromá goes into many other topics relevant to legal dictionaries, and especially for legal dictionaries for LLDs. She considers the notion of "language for a special purpose," and explains why it is more than just "terminology." She discusses what constitutes a "term." ISO standards for identifying a "term" in the sciences and technology do not easily apply to the law. Scientific and technical terms are often one-word-one-meaning, and designate objects or phenomena that exist "objectively" in a certain sense. In sharp contrast, the language of the law is replete with multi-word phrases and collocations and polysemes, and its concepts are inherently culturally and jurisdictionally bound. (Chromá counsels a conceptual analysis based on comparative law to find minimally incongruent terms: authentic if possible, or suggestive or explanatory if need be.) She considers skopos theory about the purposes of a translation, and notes that legal texts often do not have the same purpose in translation as in the original: a text that is normative or legally binding in one jurisdiction has no legal force in another. The book also examines linguistic vs. functional approaches to translation, as well as a pot-pourri of notions about "equivalence." But the discussion always keeps an eye to what entries should be made in a legal dictionary focused on L1-L2 translation by nonlawyers without access to many monolingual and authentic L2 legal resources, and without daily immersion in L2 legal concepts and discourse.

I will not address any specific translation suggestions made in Legal Translation and the Dictionary, because I want to emphasize, as the author intended, its potential usefulness to potential creators of legal dictionaries for L1-L2 use from other languages of limited diffusion. But one statement in the book came as a surprise, and the book offered some unexpected bonuses.

That the dictionary was meant "to help those trying to translate Czech legal texts into English" was nearly a tautology, and no surprise. Likewise, the assertion that "a translated text should be comprehensible to those lawyers who are native speakers of English and whose legal system is based on Common Law" appeared unobjectionable.

Indeed, one might think that it could go without saying. But most of us have seen bewildering texts that use English words but have no even speculatively reconstructible meaning. So it is refreshing that Chromá sees the issue as affecting the dictionary-maker, not just the translator: "the lexicographer must not only 'translate' a legal term from one language into another, but at the same time he should ... make a term from one legal system accessible and comprehensible to a person familiar with the other." (emphasis added).

The surprise comes with a rephrasing of the standard: "a translated text should be comprehensible not only to an English-speaking recipient in general, but also to lawyers who are native speakers of English and whose legal system and legal education is based on common law." (emphasis added) That ordering of difficulty is curious. It is not clear how a legal text ever could be understandable to a lay anglophone but not a native anglophone lawyer.

Chromá does not explain this "not only ... but also" ordering or its implication that anglophone lawyers are less able to understand texts about law than lay anglophones are. Perhaps she contemplates that a lay anglophone might be fooled by the simple appearance of legalistic-sounding "terminology" even if it were devoid of sense; while an anglophone lawyer would not be fooled by the veneer and would demand substantive sense. One thinks of medieval comedies in which a trickster, pretending to be a doctor or lawyer or cleric, fools gullible characters by fake strings of real or fake Latin words, but cannot fool someone who really does speak Latin. The chief argument against this explanation is that it requires replacing "be comprehensible to" by "be acceptable to." Or perhaps the "English-speaking recipient in general" was not meant as a native speaker, but rather as, say, a Pole or Portuguese who might decode the inauthentic "English" into his or her own civil law legalese, and thus via a back channel supply sense to it that no native English speaker could do just from the words.

An unexpected bonus in the book arose because the author was not shy about scolding Czech legislators for poor drafting and lack of standards or centralized training of legal drafters, the Czech government generally for the absence of a general language policy to encourage high standards and mastery, Czech translators for too frequent mistakes and Czechs generally for their "generally declining knowledge of our mother tongue," "neglectful use of Czech by Czech native speakers," and "linguistic ignorance and want of attention," and the European Union for using translators who are not also jurists. Such observations provided some smiles along the way, as (apart from the comments on the EU) they mirror comments made by careful French writers about their compatriots, and careful anglophone writers (including lawyers) about theirs, and undoubtedly mirror comments made by speakers of those languages and others going back centuries. In short, they are universal.

Anyone in the audience Chromá expresses the most desire to help by Legal Translation and the Dictionary (makers of legal dictionaries for the legal systems of other languages of limited diffusion and English) will find it helpful, and readers among the intended users of the dictionary itself will find Chromá's discussion of the reasoning behind some of the dictionary's entries interesting. If her book contributes to greater quality in the legal English produced by non-native speakers, it will have succeeded in its aim.

Readers of French or German will find at the back, for each language, a fifteen-page summary of the treatise's eighty English pages.