Legal Translations: Some Tips
International & Foreign Law Librarian
Lecture delivered at National Language Resource Center,
San Diego State University on July 24, 1998.
The world is shrinking and national borders are changing in concept
and practice. The modern communications systems that are now in place
make communicating from one part of the world to another a matter of
minutes, if not seconds. Modern travel has also added to the shrinking
world factor. National borders of the past were erected with the idea
of stopping or at least delaying the entry of non-nationals and goods
at the border. They were defensive borders built along military principles,
with the idea of protecting the integrity of the national territory
of the state.
Today we can see borders fast disappearing; that is to say the idea
of a border as a physical barrier meant to keep foreigners and their
goods at bay. In Western Europe, the European Community, formerly the
European Economic Community, and the Common Market, are bringing down
all national borders for all intents and purposes. Europeans can travel
throughout Europe with no need of a national passport. Their next aim
is to have a common currency for all of Western Europe. This type of
world unification is not only taking place in Western Europe, but is
taking place in the Pacific Rim Countries, in the Far East and in the
The North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), a trade treaty among
Canada, the United States and Mexico, is one of the first serious attempts
to follow the European Community's model here in the Americans. Before
NAFTA was signed, the European Community was the world's large trading
block. Now, NAFTA is the world's largest trading block. It is predicted
that NAFTA will eventually create trade in the trillions of dollars,
and that soon other countries in the Americas will be joining NAFTA,
with Chile maybe being the next country to join NAFTA any day now. I
can see the day when a container can be loaded in Toluca, Mexico, and
get to Toronto, Canada with no border inspections or delays. Everything
will flow through as if there were no national border.
But, before people and nations can conduct international trade they
must be able to communicate with one another. There must also exist
rules and uniform commercial documents that can assure the transfer
and payment for goods in an orderly and timely fashion. The rules and
uniform documents for international trade are being created by the various
governments and organizations such as the National Law Center for Inter-American
When it comes to the ability to be able to communicate with one another,
not too much is being done at the moment. How can a multi-million business
transaction take place if one party speaks Spanish and the other party
speaks English? And, to further complicate matters there is the legal
factor involved. The legal system of one country may be as different
from the other country's legal system as Spanish is from English. A
law firm will be willing to spend thousands of dollars in Federal Expressing
documents around the world, but will be reluctant to pay hundreds of
dollars for a quality translation. There is too much at stake and it
is absurd to rely on translations made by "secretaries that speak Spanish" when millions of dollars are involved. There is a great need for a national
corps of well trained legal translators to educate the U.S. business
world about the importance and difficulties of legal translating, and
to provide these required translations.
Legal translating requires two basic skills. The first skill is a
fundamental knowledge of the original and target languages. Usually
a person will favor one language or the other. This is no problem, what
is a problem is if an individual does not have a good command of at
least one of the languages. The second skill is an intelligent grasp
of the legal system of each of the countries involved. The state of
these two conditions, in the legal translator, will determine the quality
of a legal translation. A good legal translator has the ability to not
only retain the integrity of the legal information of a document, but
to capture nuance inherent in a language, while also respecting the
author's writing style.
Language and the law are very closely related and are generated through
social practices. Language is the essence of the law. The Law is substantially
formulated through language. They are formalized communication systems
because they both are governed by their own rules of creation and reproduction.
There is non-language law, but it is minor and requires little translation.
The non-language law I am talking about are things such as traffic signs,
sirens, policemen hand directions and other such things.
Legal translating demands a precision that may not be required in
other types of translations. The legal translator has to comply not
only with the rules of a foreign language, but also with the rules of
a foreign legal system. Everyday language implies a formalized way of
communication, while legal language introduces a supplementary system
of communication. People speaking the same language, but belonging to
different legal systems can have a greater translation problem than
those speaking different languages but under the same type of legal
Precision in legal translations requires fidelity to the text, and
to the context. The text can be seen as something in the foreground,
while the context can be seen as something in the background. To retain
the fidelity of a legal translation both areas have to be covered. It
is very important that a legal translator have a basic knowledge of
the law. The law is a social science, and like all disciplines it has
it's own specialized vocabulary and institutions that have evolved through
the history of the science. What distinguishes the law from the other
social science disciplines is the fact that each country in the world
has its own unique legal system. The legal system of a country is the
concentrated expression of the history, culture, social values and the
general consciousness and perceptions of a people. Given the fact that
there are over 190 countries in the world, each with it's own unique
history and culture, this means that there are going to be many differences
from one legal system to another legal system. The differences will
run the gamut from minor differences to major fundamental differences.
Therefore it is very important that a legal translator have a basic
knowledge of the law. The law is a social science, and like all disciplines
it has its own vocabulary and institutions that have evolved through
the history of the science. What distinguishes the law from the other
social sciences is the fact that each country of the world has its own
unique legal system. The legal system of the country being the concentrated
expression of the history, culture, social values and the general conscious
and perceptions of a people. Given the fact that there are over 190
countries in the world today, each with its own legal system, this means
that there are going to be many differences from one legal system to
another. The differences will run the gamut from minor differences to
major fundamental differences.
Now as this were not enough, you have to add the language barrier
factor to legal translating. Language and law share a long history.
They both go back to the origins of humans and society and are unique
to us as a species. Language preceded law, and law could not exist without
language. The substance of law is essentially symbolic and abstract.
It is language, words which give law its physical manifestation in the
form of statutes, regulations, court decisions and so forth. Unlike
the Physical Sciences that do deal with physical substances and their
relationship to humans, law is physically intangible.
This factor adds to the problem of the language barrier since the
law is so abstract. Language and law also share other common traits.
Language and law are two of the forces behind civilization and its development.
Civilization as we know it could not exist without language and law;
the three are closely related. Language and law also share complicated
rules, which must be learned and practiced to master these disciplines.
Both tend to become more complex and demanding, as individual societies
develop civilization needs to have a highly developed legal system.
What also happens as language and law develops in a society is that
they both tend to become more and more unique to their particular society.
This is due in large part to the fact that a society builds its language
and law upon foundations derived from their unique culture and history.
Today in the world there are two major types of law. There is international
law and municipal law. International law regulates the relationships
between nationals and foreign nations. Municipal law is the laws of
a nation, the legal system of a nation.
International Law is divided into two types of law. There is public
international law and private international law. Public international
law concerns matters of state. The United Nations and other regional
international organizations are the main source of public international
law. This law deals with human rights, law of war, law of the sea; matters
that tend to be of national/government interest. Private International
Law governs the relationship between individuals from different nations
and the relationship between the government of a nation and an individual
of a foreign nation. This law, private international law, is the business
law of the world. International business transactions are governed by
this law, to a major extent. Private international law is the law legal
translations will most often be working with, in the form of sales,
payments, shipping, contracts, etc.
Municipal law is divided into what are known as legal traditions.
Legal traditions are mainly based on past historical ties, such as a
common history, common cultural origins, and close financial ties. Countries
with the same legal traditions will share common historical backgrounds
and development; common theories and hierarchy of law sources; a common
working methodology of jurists; and common legal institutions.
The United States belongs to the Common Law Tradition because of its
shared history with England. The Common Law Tradition is the second
oldest Legal Tradition of the world. Its origins are traced back to
1066, when the Norman Conquest of England took place. As I mentioned
before, we are part of the common law tradition. The common law tradition
spread throughout the world with the British empire. Now most of the
Commonwealth Countries, along with the United States share this law
tradition. In numbers of people, the common law tradition is the smallest
of the Legal Traditions.
The main characteristics of the common law tradition is the preeminence
of case decision. The doctrine of precedent, or stare decisis,
has a central place as a source of law in our legal system. Large areas
of law have developed through Judicial decisions and not through rules
of Legislative origin. Judges play a key role in the common law tradition.
They create law through their decisions; they are the authorities in
our legal system. Judges stand at the pinnacle of the common law tradition.
The famous and important personalities in our legal system are the Judges,
not legal scholars or lawyers.
The other prominent legal tradition is the Civil Law Tradition. This
Legal Tradition is the oldest and the mostly widely spread throughout
the world. It has its origins in Europe, excepting England. The origins
of the Civil Law Tradition can be traced back to Roman Law, middle age
merchants law, and the 19th century codification movement
seen mainly in France and Germany. Europe and most all of South America,
as well as Asia are part of Civil Law Tradition.
In the civil law tradition, the oldest of the three legal traditions
and the most widely spread of the three legal traditions, judges do
not make law. In the civil law tradition, judges are viewed as bureaucrats
who only apply the law and do not interpret the law. The doctrine of
precedent is not recognized in the civil law tradition. The famous and
important personalities of the civil law tradition are the legal scholars
and not the Judges. This legal philosophy of viewing the judiciary as
a secondary player, is reflected in the relative lack of case reporters
and the accompanying reference finding tools in the civil law tradition.
The main source of law in the civil law tradition is legislative law.
In the civil law tradition it is believed that only the legislature
and executive have the moral and legal authority to create law. Traditionally,
the civil law tradition was seen as a codified statuary system, while
the common law tradition was considered uncodified and based mainly
on judicial decisions. This dichotomy between the two traditions is
disappearing and they are coming closer together with time. In the common
law more and more of this law is coming from the legislatures, the federal
legislative assembly, and the state legislatures. In the civil law tradition
court decisions, especially Supreme Court decisions, are being reported
more and more and used as secondary persuasive material.
The main codes (laws) of the Civil Law Tradition have been written
through the years, and I am talking about 100 to 200 years when it comes
to the civil code and commercial code. These codes were on the assumption
that using a rational scholarly process, rules and laws could be formulated
to apply to most all situations that may arise. As a result, codes tend
to be very detailed and vast in size. Most all civil codes of the civil
law tradition countries of the world are based on the Napoleonic Civil
Code, and so are very similar to each other. Most of the Latin American
Civil Codes are copies of the Napoleonic Civil Code. Most of the commercial
codes of the civil law tradition countries of the world are based on
the German Commercial Code produced in the late 19th century.
Again most of the Latin American Commercial Codes are copies of the
German Commercial Code.
The original codes were not written by lawyers, judges, or even legislatures.
The codes were written by legal scholars after long extensive studies,
and then adopted by the legislatures. Here you can see the importance
of the legal scholar in developing the law in the Civil Law Tradition.
The five most important codes of the civil law tradition are the civil
code, the commercial code, the criminal code, the code of civil procedures,
and the code of criminal procedures. These five codes, plus the constitution
will be the basis for most all of the laws of a Civil Law Tradition
country. The civil code and the commercial code and the various other
laws and regulations that emanate from these two codes will be what
is considered private law. The criminal code, the constitution, and
the administrative code will be the source for most of what is considered
public law. I have been mentioning national legal systems. Now, what
exactly do I mean by a national legal system? At this point I will only
say that a national legal system are the laws, the legal procedures
and the legal institutions of a given country. There is the legal system
of the United States, the legal system of Mexico, the legal system of
Canada and the legal systems of the rest of the countries of the world.
One of the main points I want to get across at this moment, is the fact
that there is no one universal law, no one legal tradition and no one
legal system. The laws of the world are as unique as are the nations
of the world. Yet the nations of the world also share common traits
that are common to all nations of the world.
Such is the situation with the legal systems of the world. They are
all unique, yet they do share some common basic legal traits. Knowing
this, a legal translator must avoid generalizations or stereotyping
of legal systems of the world. A legal translator should find common
ground, but realize that the common ground will vary according to the
historical, cultural, and economic ties that have existed in the past
between any two nations.
Many times a legal translator will come across foreign legal words
and legal concepts that will be difficult to fit into his/her legal
frame of reference. Some legal words seem impossible to translate into
English, while others seem impossible to translate into Spanish, even
with the aid of a bilingual dictionary.
When I talked about international law, I mentioned that international
law was divided into private international law and public international
law. Well, that legal principle comes from the civil law tradition which
divides the law into private law and public law. The common law tradition
(U.S.) law does not have such a division of law. In the civil law tradition,
private law concerns the legal relationships between individuals, while
public law concerns the legal relationships between individuals and
The primary tools of the legal translator are going to be dictionaries.
Monolingual dictionaries, specialized dictionaries, bilingual dictionaries
and specialized bilingual dictionaries. For English/Spanish and Spanish/English
legal translators, I would highly recommend the following dictionaries:
In the area of monolingual dictionaries I would recommend Merriam-Webster's
New Collegiate Dictionary and the Diccionario de la Lengua Espanola
of the Real Academia Espanola.
In the area of specialized dictionaries in English, a translator must
own a copy of Black's Law Dictionary published by the West Publishing
Company, or a copy of Ballentine's Law Dictionary by the published
Bancroft-Whitney Company. These two dictionaries are the source for
all legal definitions. A translator cannot make do without one or the
other of these dictionaries.
In the area of specialized dictionaries in Spanish, I highly recommend
El Diccionario Juridico Mexicano published by the Instituto de
Investigaciones Juridicas at UNAM. This is a multi-volume dictionary
that is published in hardcover and paperback editions. This is the most
complete legal dictionary you can buy without going into the very expensive
legal encyclopedias. The investment of about $100.00 for this dictionary
is well worth it. There is also available a small one volume legal dictionary,
Diccionario de Derecho by Rafael de la Pina Vara that is published
by Porrua of Mexico. I would highly recommend that these two dictionaries
be part of any legal translator's library.
With the dictionaries mentioned above the legal translator not only
has a point of departure for the language element, but for the understanding
of the specialized vocabulary of each of the legal systems.
A translator will need several bilingual legal dictionaries to be
able to perform his/her work. I recommend two bilingual legal dictionaries.
The most comprehensive bilingual legal dictionary is Butterworths
Spanish/English and English/Spanish Legal Dictionary compiled by
Guillermo Cabanellas de las Cuevas and Eleanor C. Hoague. This is a
two volume dictionary with definitions and equivalents given when possible.
A second bilingual dictionary that I would highly recommend would be
Dahl's Law Dictionary: Spanish/English; English/Spanish published
by William S. Hein & Company and compiled by Henry Saint Dahl. This
dictionary is not as comprehensive as Cabanellas' dictionary, but has
some useful features. The most useful features are two "Key Word Tables" which are divided by language and by legal topic, and the inclusion
of Spanish language legal abbreviations. The other bilingual legal dictionaries
available are West's Spanish-English/English-Spanish Law Dictionary
published by the West Publishing Company; Dictionary of Legal Terms
by Julio Romanach published by the Lawrence Publishing Company; Wiley's
Spanish-English/English-Spanish Legal Dictionary published by
the John Wiley & Sons and compiled by Steven Kaplan. This last dictionary
is not a dictionary in the true sense of the word. It is a glossary
of legal terms with equivalents or near equivalent legal terms. There
are no definitions included, just equivalents. This dictionary must
be used with care, making sure that the equivalent given is a true and
faithful equivalent to what is needed.
The federal and state governments are a good source for specialized
bilingual glossaries. For example the IRS publishes a glossary entitled
English-Spanish Glossary of Words and Phrases used in Publications
Issued by the Internal Revenue Service.
For a complete and concise evaluation of what is available in the
area of bilingual legal dictionaries, see "A Comparative Review of Spanish-English
Legal Dictionaries," 86 Law Library Journal 230.
Another important resource available to the legal translator are already
translated primary materials, such as codes, laws and regulations. The
most important materials in translation for the translator will be the
constitutions, the civil codes, the commercial codes and the civil and
criminal procedures codes. Since the Latin American countries share
the Civil Law Tradition, there will not be too much difference between
the codes of one Latin American country and the codes of another Latin
American country. The point being that the Mexican Civil Code, which
has been translated into English, can be used when translating civil
statutes or civil documents from a country other than Mexico. The translated
constitutions and translated codes will give the nomenclature of the
institutions and the key terms and how they are used in a legal context.
A quick look at the civil code of Mexico will tell the translator that
an individual in a legal context is know as a "persona fisica." For
example the phrase, "los derechos de una persona fisica," will translate
into the "rights of an individual," and not into the "rights of a physical
person." "Los derecho de un persona moral" will translate into "the
rights of a corporation," and not into "the rights of moral person."
One source for translations of business related materials (commercial
code, banking laws, business regulations, etc.) is Doing Business
in Mexico by Andrea Bonime-Blanc and William E. Mooz. The set
is published by Transnational Juris Publications, Inc. This three volume
set is expensive to buy and to maintain current, since it is a loose-leaf
set. But, most law libraries will have a copy of this set. Another important
source for translated materials is The Mexican Legal System: A Reference
Guide by Francisco Avalos and published by the Greenwood Press.
This monograph was written not only to provide guidance, but to lead
the reader to translated Mexican legal materials.
The translated constitutions will provide the translator with the
key words and phrases concerning the structure and functions of the
various government entities. What are Executive Cabinet Posts called
in Mexico?; regulatory agencies?; foreigners?, etc.? The best sources
for constitutions in English is Constitutions of the World
by Albert P. Blaustein and Gisbert H. Flanz and published by Ocean Publications,
Inc. This loose-leaf set is comprised of over 20 volumes and can be
found in most major law libraries or university libraries. The Organization
of American States also produces Latin American constitutions in English,
though these constitutions tend to be dated.
A translated criminal code will give the legal translator the proper
terminology for the criminal field. What is a felony called in Mexico?
What is the term for involuntary manslaughter in Mexico? A translated
commercial code will give the legal translator commercial terms. "What
is a bonded warehouse called in Mexico?" The translated commercial code
tells the legal translator that a "bonded warehouse" in Mexico is known
as a "Almacen General de Deposito." No need to decide whether to use
"Almacen Afianzado, Almacen Aduanero, bodega fiscal, etc.;" terms
that will be given to the legal translator by a bilingual legal dictionary.
It is a good practice for a translator to always save a copy of any
translation that he/she may render. The main reason for this practice
is to have a reference point, a starting point for future translations.
For example, if the translated document happens to be a sales contract
for an agency agreement, the translator will come across some of the
key terms and key phrases involved in sales contracts, and in particular
agency sales for future use. Legal documents have a standard, common
vocabulary that will be used often and repeated. That is what a translator
wants to pull from translated documents; the standard, common vocabulary.
The translator can file/save the translated document for future references.
The document could be filed/saved under contracts and agency. When the
translator has another contract to translate, he/she can then bring
out the translated copy of the sales contract and gleam the common terminology.
Another way to approach this process is to create a list of the standard
common vocabulary from the document. Each document is reviewed to pick
out the standard common vocabulary which will form the basis for the
translator's personal dictionary or glossary. Though there are bilingual
legal dictionaries available, I would strongly recommend that a translator
start and maintain his/her own dictionary. If nothing else, this will
give consistency to the translations. There are often choices of words
or phrases in translating. With a personal dictionary, the choice of
words or phrases is made once and used throughout. The translator can
then continue to use the same vocabulary, not having to decide on a
term from a dictionary every time a particular term comes up.
It is always a good idea to have another person proofread your translation.
I recommend working with a partner if at all possible. You can each
check each other's work which makes for better translation. I always
have someone read my translations before I send them out.
Always look at the complete document and read the complete document
before starting to translate (several times). A translator must first
completely understand the what he/she is translating. If a translator
does not completely understand a document in the original language,
then there is little chance of getting a good quality translation. How
can you translate something that you do not fully understand? That is
not possible. What some translators do in situations where they do not
fully understand a document or its context, is to try and translate
word by word with no legal context. What they produce is a document
that makes no sense in either language. The document will read like
a foreign language to the legal people. Legal translation must be translated
in a legal context. Word by word translation does not work. A legal
translator should also work towards consistency. Once a legal translator
selects a legal term or legal phrase for use, the legal translator should
continue to use the same legal term or legal phrases throughout the
translation. It is not acceptable to be changing terms through a legal
There are certain things that will appear in many legal documents
or official documents that must be translated even though these things
are not language per say. These include seals, stamps, signatures, letterhead,
and others. If there is some kind of seal or stamp on the document,
I would place these words where the seal or stamp is located, "Official
Seal of the States of Sonora," or whatever the seal or stamp might say.
Signatures will require the name of the person signing the document.
At times it may be "illegible signature." It is important that these
things not be over looked by the translator. All abbreviations and acronyms
should also be translated, if known, and the original abbreviation or
acronym included in parenthesis i.e., "CCP" Civil Procedures Code (CCP).
There are legal abbreviations and acronyms dictionaries available, but
I would recommend to a translator that he/she start a glossary of legal
abbreviations and acronyms as they come across them. This should be
a part of the translator's personal library. The legal abbreviation
dictionaries available are:
Bieber's Dictionary of Legal Abbreviations. By Mary Miles
Prince and published by William S. Hein & Company Co., Inc. This
dictionary covers English legal abbreviations and acronyms, 1993.
Latin American Legal Abbreviations: A Comprehensive Spanish/
Portuguese Dictionary with English Translations. By Francisco
Avalos and published by the Greenwood Press, 1989.
A legal translator should assure access to a law library, university
library or a large public library. These libraries should be seen as
part of the tools a legal translator will need. Law library will have
bilingual legal dictionaries and other resources such a journal articles
and introduction to legal systems of the world. There will also be legal
encyclopedias, and most important of there will be law librarians. A
legal translator should look upon law librarians as colleagues who are
there to help. In the other libraries I mentioned before, a legal translator
can find specialized bilingual dictionaries for such areas as medicine,
engineering, real estate and many other areas of specialty. The legal
translator will require these special bilingual dictionaries when translating
such things as injury reports and specialized contracts, such as an
There professional associations that a legal translator should join.
The advantages of such an association far out weight the annual dues
or the expense of traveling to a conference. It is at regional and national
conferences/meetings where a legal translator can start networking and
keep abreast of new developments in the field. These associations also
add to the professionalism of the legal translating career. They create
and implement professional standard codes and in general can be very
helpful to the legal translator.