Becoming a Legal Translator

On 9 January 2015, I attended the Symposium on Legal Translation organised by the University of Roehampton. The audience was varied, from students and new-starters to experienced professional translators.

The day began with a presentation on professionalizing the legal translation by Juliette Scott, a translator and the author of the blog “From Words to Deeds”. According to her research, translators do not behave as a profession and it is impossible to give them an easily recognisable face. Translators themselves pose the greatest threat to the profession when, for example, they accept low rates, translate texts outside their specialisation area or speak negatively about themselves. She suggested that translators should start by calling themselves “professionals” or “practitioners” rather than a “resource” or even a “freelancer”.

The first panel session was an account by Fiona English about her work as an expert forensic witness in legal cases involving non-native English speakers. After explaining the processes involved for this type of work such as collecting language data, matching this with police interviews, writing reports and appearing in court, Fiona highlighted how interpreters can affect a case.  She emphasised the dangers of interpreters getting too actively involved, for example by calming down the individuals being interrogated or by entering into an involved dialogue with them.

The next panel session was given by the legal translator Karen Stokes, who provided a framework to plan and implement a CPD programme. Her outcomes-focused approach is divided into four stages: Reflect (understand your gaps and needs), Plan (register to purposeful events), Act (attendance) and Evaluate (assess whether the event was useful and plan CPD accordingly for the next 12 months). She emphasized how different activities have different values depending on the stage we are at in our careers. She also reminded us that CPD includes researching terminology or a topic, preparing our own concept-based glossaries and writing articles.

The third panellist was CIOL committee member Michael Cunningham, who described the qualifications offered by the CIOL and in particular the Diploma in Translation qualification.

The final panellist was legal translator Ellen Moerman, who explored how our profession has evolved. Whereas translators were once active contributors to publications, often writing prefaces and footnotes as well as corresponding with authors, technological developments have changed the role of translators significantly.  Translators no longer interact directly with authors and they have to deal with new expectations driven by today’s consumer approach. However, Ellen’s forecast for legal translators was positive.  She argued that machines cannot correct errors in the source text, ask questions and provide knowledge, highlight inconsistencies, suggest tailor-made solutions, spot trends and updates or speak the client’s language.

After a well-deserved networking lunch, we were divided into two groups to attend the afternoon’s workshops.

During her workshop, professor Łucja Biel underlined how legal translations require “surgical precision” and how accuracy takes precedence over naturalness. Typical problems encountered when translating legal texts include legal-system specific terminology or concepts and the different use of words in a civil or criminal context and in various geographical areas. We also looked at various legal terms and formulae well as litanies used in common law jurisdictions.  It was noted how continental legal documents tend to avoid repetition and synonyms. Finally, Łucja proposed some strategies and techniques, such as glosses or referring to the foreign concept when dealing with terms that have no real equivalence.

The second workshop was given by Vilelmini Sosoni, lecturer in Translation at the Ionian University in Corfu.   This focused on some of the challenges when translating for the EU, such as the fact that many of the texts are written in English by non-native speakers and that the translation process is restrictive because the source text must take precedence over clarity. “Eurospeak” is becoming the norm with the use of neologism and borrowings in an attempt to reach “linguistic equality” and sameness. External translators therefore need to undertake a lot of background research (including acronyms) and to cross-refer constantly with previous translations and EU resources such as IATE and EU’s writing guide.

The day ended with a presentation by Richard Delaney, a bilingual legal translator and qualified lawyer, on the practical aspects of working as a legal translator. His main message was that legal translators should be defined on the basis of quality, not price. Good legal translators need to have a sound understanding of the legal systems in their source and target languages as well as an excellent grasp of both languages.  They also need an eye for detail, a realistic view of their capabilities and a willingness to turn down work that they are not competent to do. He reminded us that we are not competing for a small, finite number of clients and that we will not get every job.  Our prices must be right for us. I will leave you with a quote Richard took from Red Adair: “If you think it is expensive to hire a professional to do the job, wait until you hire an amateur.

Click here to download a pdf of the article as published in the ITI Bulletin.

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