Legal terminology and the good court interpreter.

January 27, 2017 § 10 Comments

Dear Colleagues:

For several months I have noticed a proliferation of blog posts, language agency advertisements, webinars, and conference presentations where the interpreter’s knowledge of legal terminology is emphasized.  Seminars, on-line and in-person, focus on the importance of legal terminology and are usually packed with lists of words and phrases found in statutes and regulations. Bilingual glossaries are given away as perks to those who paid to attend the talk, and power point presentations are full of sections of the law that were literally cut and pasted from the statute.

Attendees to this “terminology workshops” are told to memorize the new words and expressions just because “…that is what the Act says” or “this is the term found in the bilingual legal dictionary”, and their questions are often answered with the reading of more sections of the law, without giving any logical reason or explanation as to the why it has to be the way the instructor said so. There are many blog posts, language agency websites, webinars, and conference presentations where current and accurate terminology is shared, but there is absolutely no context.  This is dangerous and it is wrong.

Sometimes we read that a populist government, a well-known linguist, or a prestigious language institution issue statements advocating for legal terminology that is more accessible to the common individual.   This is also extremely dangerous, irresponsible, and very wrong.

Legal terminology is what it is for a reason: It deals with social values higher than accessibility; it deals with legal accuracy and legal certainty, two values that are needed in any society to keep individuals safe.  Free to pursue their lives as they please by creating legal transactions, forming legal bonds, and asserting their legal rights, which are necessary to reach their goals and be happy. To protect this higher values, a legal system needs to be complex and sophisticated. We need the proper terminology to put these concepts, which we call legal precepts, in writing for all to see and observe.  It is a fact that many times they will differ from conventional language, not because legislators, attorneys and judges wanted to, but because they had to. This is why we have lawyers in our society.

Memorizing legal terminology like a parrot is easy, it only requires of memory and patience. Knowing the “why” and “how” of a legal term, and understanding its different meanings and applications according to context is a different story: it requires a deep knowledge of legal philosophy, substantive and adjective law, and the development of an analytical capacity that allows the individual, who has the background mentioned above, to decipher hidden meanings, legislators’ intent, and applicability to the specific set of facts (there is a term in Spanish to describe this essential skill: “criterio jurídico”)  It is only then that we are in a position to truly know the meaning of a term that makes it applicable to our particular set of facts. We need to have context to know when and how to use legal terminology. Everything else is confusing, vague, and potentially damaging to the client.

In Mexican legal Spanish, the term for bankruptcy is different depending on the type of proceedings. The legal term “bankruptcy”, used in the American legal system does not give us enough information to decide the appropriate terminology. We would need to have context to determine if we are facing a Chapter 7 bankruptcy, in which case the correct legal term would be “quiebra”, or a Chapter 11 bankruptcy, as this would be translated or interpreted as “suspensión de pagos”. Without getting into Bankruptcy Law, I have to tell you that these are two very different legal figures and proceedings with very distinct consequences.

Black’s Law Dictionary defines legal interpretation as: “The art or process of discovering and ascertaining the meaning…” (Black’s Law Dictionary Centennial Edition 6th. Edition p.817)

To be able to properly interpret a hearing or sight translate a legal document, court interpreters must know legal terminology on both languages, but to provide a professional accurate rendition, the interpreter must understand the legal concepts and court proceedings being interpreted, and put everything that is happening at the hearing in context, so the choice of legal terms and concepts in the target language is correct.

It is essential that those teaching legal terminology are skilled in this area so they can answer questions with accuracy, and it is important that they explain the “why” and “how” of the legal terms and concepts that they are teaching. It is also very important that those paying for a webinar, workshop, or glossary, demand this knowledge from their instructors. Everything else is dangerous and unethical.  Please do not get me wrong, I am not calling for all court interpreters to have a law degree (although having one is a tremendous advantage). All I am asking is that you stop and think of all the possibilities before you utter a legal term in court, and that when you pay for a continuing education course, workshop, talk, or webinar on legal terminology, you make sure the instructor does have the required legal knowledge and skill to teach the subject correctly.

I hope that the next time you see an agency advertising that their interpreters know the appropriate legal terminology, you go a little deeper to find out if they are offering interpreters who truly know how select the applicable legal term or concept, of they are simply advertising bilingual parrots for hire. I now invite you to share with the rest of us your ideas regarding this crucial aspect of court and legal interpreting.

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