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Much has been said about the difficulty of translating legal matters, most authors ascribing the impediment to the alleged disparity of two legal systems —the application of a consuetudinary legal system, or so called Common Law on the one hand, and the upholding of Roman Law on the other.

Undoubtedly, translating legal texts is difficult. Essentially, one must be unequivocal and unambiguous. This difficulty is compounded by the patent tendency of lawyers everywhere to lock their sacrosanct jargon “in the safe of an unknown tongue” (Melinkoff cited by Altay), as to preserve the prerogatives and privileges afforded to the practitioners of the legal profession in a kind of sacred elitism, oftentimes verging on snobbery, akin to the wearing of a dark three-piece cashmere suit by some Cumaná lawyers who, despite their copious sweating and pretension at casualness in a sweltering day, attempt to proclaim their self-imposed importance to their more humble, cotton-borne brethren and the people at large.

But I submit —to parody the proud bearers of legalese— that very often their grammar and syntax come loose at the hems, and much of the alleged intricacy is nothing but the inability to carefully compose long sentences without incurring in gibberish and verbiage. Of course, there are valid reasons and intended vagueness, too.

Many a time, when translating an English legal text, I have had to resort to what De La Cuesta calls oblique translation; or circumvent the repetition alluded to by Alcarez Varó in order to avoid expressive redundancy. On the other hand, I have at times recurred to slight alliteration in order to convey the naturalness of the receiving language.

Punctuation in English legal texts calls for the need of an orderly mind. I have no trouble with that, my punctuation being rather structural, depending more on the text syntax than in respiratory pauses. Here, for instance, the unnecessary capitals in Default and Court notwithstanding, I take issue with Alcaraz Varó when he claims insufficient or inadequate punctuation in the following excerpt:

This cause coming to be heard upon the motion of the husband, a Default entered, it is thereupon ordered and adjudged that this Court has jurisdiction over the parties and the subject matter.

Many are the hurdles in legal translation. Subjunctives, Latin phrases, formal and archaic adverbs and conjunctions, false cognates, and passive voice, all surface with dumbfounding frequency in legal texts, thus mandating educated discretion on the part of the translator.

I thoroughly research terms and expressions in both English and Spanish in order to tackle a legal translation. In frank opposition to some translators who resort to literal translations which must puzzle the receiver, I paraphrase, my aim being to let the guy at the receiving end know what has been meant. So Ley orgánica para la protección del niño y del adolescente becomes The Minor Protection Act. The wording in Spanish, or rather the Venezuelan wording of the law, alludes to the implicit need to distinguish between a teenager and a young child, a distinction that comes to the mind of both the legislator and the common man to convey that a child is one thing and an adolescent quite another, whereas English and US legislation assumes persons under the legal age as being “children,” despite the fact that the mere definition of legal age differs depending on where the law is being applied and what the age is being invoked for, e.g., drinking, sexual consent, or the legal age to get a tattoo, etc. Essentially, the translator must, to paraphrase Susan Sarcevic, have the authority to make educated decisions in order to produce an alternative to traditional translation, depending on the function of the target text. Carefully rewording a text should no longer be a subversive act, as Tiersma warns us that it used to be.

Carlos Mota.- Traductor, intérprete público y director de Traduce, C.A.


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