Legal genres in translation

A useful innovation in the theory and practice of specialized translation is the concept of genre, which has also found its way into contemporary textbooks on the teaching of English for specific purpose, following the examples of Swales and Bhatia.

By ‘genre,’ or ‘text type’, we mean each of the specific classes of texts characteristic of a given scientific community or professional group and distinguished from each other by certain features of vocabulary, form and style. In the particular case of the language of the law, examples of genres include witness statements, statements of claim, contracts and judgments.

Given this broad definition of the term, it makes perfectly good sense to speak of ‘genres’ in everyday communication. For instance, anyone with a working knowledge of the appropriate conventions can tell at a glance whether a given text is a letter of condolence, a recipe or a piece of advertising copy.

And relatively sophisticated speakers of a language will probably be able to determine, on the basis of the respect or otherwise shown for conventions, whether the genre is being used seriously, playfully or ironically, and possibly whether the genre is being invoked for real-world purpose or is being exploited for the purpose of fictional representation.

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Texts belonging to a given genre display at least the following stylistic and formal features:

1) A shared communicative function expressed by means of the same performative verb. For example, all injunctions are in the form of orders that must be strictly complied with, whether they involve performing an act or refraining from a specific action

2) A similar macrostructure, i.e. format or organization outline. For instance, all judgments are arranged into a minimum of three basic sections: facts as found, relevant law, and decision or ruling.

3) A similar discursive mode of developing the macrostructure (narrative, descriptive, imperative, optative) and similar discourse techniques aimed at satisfying the discourse expectations of the recipient or addressee.

4) A common lexical and syntactic arrangement of the material and a common set of function units and formal features, e.g. in statutes and other legislative texts, the abundant use of indefinite pronouns, passives and impersonal forms of the verb, ‘shall’ forms of the future to indicate legal obligation, extensive lists of categories or classes of persons and objects to whom or to which the law applies, and so on.

5) Common socio-pragmatic conventions, e.g. the hierarchical structure of the judiciary as reflected in the abbreviated titles of different judges, and the appropriate style of address (‘my Lord’, ‘your Lordships’, ‘your Honour, ‘your Worship’, together with the highly conventional use of certain verbs or verb phrase in given contexts (‘submit’, ‘put it to you’, ‘crave’, ‘petition’, ‘pray’, ‘grant’, ‘give leave’, ‘restore’, ‘discharge’, ‘strike out’, etc.).

Then, this is the general sense in which we are using the term ‘genre’. There are written and oral sub-genres of a given genres, but it is also possible to identify other subsets of the major text type found in each of the areas.

The identification of genres is of great assistance to translators since it helps them focus on the particular needs and functions being catered for in a given original, and to look further and deeper into the nature of the particular texts they are dealing with.

Genre identification allows translators to go beyond mere matters of lexical equivalence (polysymy, synonymity and related issues), syntactic equivalence (nominalization, passivity, modality, word order and similar consideration) or stylistic equivalence (solemnity, formality, figures of speech and other rhetorical devices, severity or asperity of tone in oral utterances, and so on).

There is, of course, a sense in which a text cannot be translated at all unless the translator recognizes the genre to which it belongs. In fact, the translator who has taken the trouble to recognize the formal and stylistic conventions of a particular original has already done much to translate the text successfully.

A good example of a highly conventional genre is the university degree or diploma. Because of the increasing mobility of university students and researchers, this is a kind of administrative text that professional translators regularly have to deal with. Analysis of the standard layout of English example shows a striking similarity of macrostructure, which may be brought under the following head:

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Academic justification for the award:

…on the recommendation of the Senate of University…

Purpose of the certificate (expressed by a performative verb):

…does hereby confer upon J.N. the degree of …

Rights and privilege conferred by the award:

…with all the rights and privilege appertaining thereto…

Place and date of issue:

Given at P., this twelfth day of June, nineteen hundred and eighty eight.


The Chairman of the Board Trustees.

In addition to the major legal genres examined above, there are two further classes of genres in legal text typology which, by comparison, are more flexible and more open in their subject matter, though they still possess distinctive macrostructural features that make them instantly identifiable as legal genres.

These are respectively texts setting out legal arrangements made by private individuals in their voluntary dealings with one another, and academic writings on the law.

The leading type within private law genres is the contract, but the category includes other major types such as wills and deeds. Flexibility is seen in content rather than in form. For convenience, contracts do in fact to conform to standard formats, or even to be written on standard forms.

By far the majority of commercial agreements the translator is likely to have to deal with will fall into these conventional categories. It is thus possible to establish a working macrostructure that covers most cases.

By contrast, academic work on the law belongs to one of the classic written genres. It is wide-ranging in subject matter though relatively constrained in form, and is likely to be densely technical in its references to the entire gamut of public and private law subgenres.

Obviously the macrostructure in this case is determined not so much by legal constraints and traditions as by the conventions of the genre to which such texts truly belong, which is the essay in one or other of its forms.

Translation of legal texts is conditioned by contextual as well as by textual factors and translations will therefore vary in accordance with the requirements of the particular target audience.