4-1 An Introduction to the Dos and Don’ts of Legal Translation

ブル・セーラジェーン Sarah Jane Bull

Sarah Bull graduated from The University of Queensland's Masters of Japanese Interpreting and Translation (MAJIT) program as a NAATI accredited translator and interpreter in 2006. Since graduating, she has dedicated herself to developing a specialization in legal translation and to the teaching of translation. After working as an in-house legal translator at a major law firm in Tokyo for four years, Sarah made the shift to freelance translation. Since making that shift in 2011 she has taught translation at Sophia University and Temple University in Japan and nowadays is kept very busy as a partner at Translation Business Systems Japan (TBSJ). She is also a committee member of JAT Special Interest Group JATLAW.

報告者:梅村フィデス Fides Umemura (日英翻訳者)

Can you translate legal documents without any legal background? Legal translator Sarah Jane Bull says yes. She then proceeded to give the audience an introduction to translating Japanese legal documents into English through a series of dos and don’ts. Aimed at the neophyte legal translator, the presentation nevertheless assumes that the audience are competent translators who need a little guidance to venture into this specialized field.

Non-legal translators have several preconceptions regarding the field. One of them is that it is mostly concerned with contracts. Not so. Bull says legal translation involves any writing coming from a law firm, including letters and emails, as well as company rules for businesses. Many also believe that there may be legal repercussions for translation errors. She clarifies that the English translation is “for reference only,” and that the Japanese is still the official document. Moreover, novice translators usually assume that they need to know legalese as well. On the contrary, Bull urges translators to write in plain legal English, which is fortunately also the trend in the English language. To tackle your first legal translation, here are the dos and don’ts.

How to approach legal translation

Don’t accept jobs blindly. Do ask the right questions.

There are plenty of potential pitfalls in accepting jobs without reviewing the document first. You might receive non-editable files, scanned, OCRed, or worse, handwritten text. Review the content beforehand and look out for onerous requirements attached to the job such as glossary management or formatting.

Don’t bother your client. Do ask for resources.

Make sure to send a clearly worded request of everything you want early on, rather than asking several times as you go along. Ask for such things as different file formats, previous similar translations, relevant source and target language materials, glossary, and client preferences.

Don’t bite off more than you can chew. Do start with the familiar.
Don’t work in a bubble. Do educate yourself.

The best way to learn is by asking for feedback from clients. Request for a final copy of the document you translated, which is especially valuable because they are usually reviewed by lawyers. Read books, attend related events, and connect with others through mailing lists and social networks. Bull strongly recommends reading Bryan Garner’s book, The Elements of Legal Style. The JATLAW group website in JAT (Japan Association of Translation) contains a wealth of information from past seminars.

Don’t rely on unreliable resources. Do use credible resources.

 The Japanese Law Translation website is a great resource, with a search engine of Japanese legislation and a downloadable Standard Legal Terms Dictionary. The Kenkyusha Online Dictionary (subscription fee required) is also highly recommended.

Don’t do the lawyer’s job. Do point out errors.

Use plain legal English

Don’t use language because it “sounds legal.” Do try to use plain legal English.

Avoid archaisms such as “hereinafter” and “whereas,” and doublets/triplets such as “null and void” (use “void” instead). Double numbering, wordiness, fancy words and vagueness should also be avoided.

Don’t insist on doing things your way. Do allow for client preferences.

Of course, if the client asks you to use “shall” and “in witness whereof”, then it’s better to prioritize their preferences.

Don’t pad your word count. Do try to write concisely
Don’t mimic the Japanese mindlessly. Do focus on making the English readable.

Be accurate and consistent

Don’t use flowery language. Do write consistently.

Consistency trumps even the best translation, according to Bull. Be sure to keep your terms, numbering and style consistent throughout the document.

Don’t proceed without a plan. Do develop strategies and systems.

Start with some work strategy/system in place to check for consistency and prevent omissions since these are particularly important for legal documents.

Don’t rely on your brain. Do use a checklist.

The checklist can include anything that you need to do to complete the job, from formatting and spellchecking to saving your document before delivery.

The session ended with a short group translation exercise that brought out more issues related to legal translation.