The Major Difficulty in Legal Translation

When you ask a person who does the legal translation or did it before, he or she may tell you how long and complicated the sentence is and how hard to understand it. That is true, like translation in other professional field, legal translation requires you to have the legal background which helps you to understand the context and choose the right term in translation. Now I would like to introduce the major difficulty of legal translation. That is the difference of legal system.

There are two main legal systems in the world, common law system and civil law system. Civil law system was originated from Roman law which was adopted by France, Germany, Japan, China etc., while the common law system was developed on the basis of English common law and was adopted by UK (except for Scotland), US, Canada, India, Singapore etc. These two legal systems adopt different legal concepts and legal terms, which cause difficulty in finding the same words or terms for translation, thus result in the major difficulty in legal translation. Therefore, when you are translating the legal documents, you should first make sure to which country such documents are applicable, so that to determine which terms are being used under such legal system. For example,

1. Assault and Battery. These two words are found in common law system. When we consult the English-Chinese dictionary, they both mean“殴打”, but in common law system, they are related but attribute to distinct crimes. Battery means the unlawful application of physical force to another and assault means an attempt to commit battery or an act that causes another reasonably to fear an imminent battery. So we should translate these two words into Chinese as“威胁”and“殴打”respectively.

2. Equity. Equity has many meanings. Its general meaning is “general fairness” or “natural justice”. But in legal field, it means the ownership interest(in Chinese called“股权”), or refers to a particular body of rules that originated in common law system(in Chinese called“衡平法”). So when you encounter this word, please refer to the context to choose the right translation.

3. Defendant, Accused and Respondent. In Chinese, they all have the meaning of“被告”。But they are different in distinct cases. The party sued in a civil lawsuit is called “defendant”, and the party who is being charged with trial for a believed crime is called “accused”, while the party who is required to answer a petition for a court order or writ requiring to take some action, halt an activity or obey a court’s direction is called “respondent”. When you are doing the Chinese to English legal translation, pay attention to the usage of these three words.

Since we are learning the civil law system in China, getting the knowledge of common law system is certainly of great help in doing the legal translation. Besides, a professional law dictionary is a must to pick up the right word.

As a law major and having worked in legal profession for several years, I decided to devote myself to legal translation two years ago. I am so honored to share my experience with you all and hope we can make progress together.

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