Legal Translation and Interpretation Tools Recap

By Alex Zhang

One of the positive impacts of globalization is to greatly reduce the cost of cross-border communications and transactions.  The traditional physical boundary is blurred due to modern communication technologies.  Google Books allow readers to have instant access to works published by authors from hundreds of thousands of miles away.  Instant messaging and email allow acquisition librarians to negotiate licenses with vendors from the other side of the world all the time.  E-commerce and the Internet allow librarians to select and purchase materials without having to physically cross the borders.  However, none of the above tasks can be truly accomplished without breaking a barrier that still exists– the language barrier.

With over 190 countries and over 3000 languages being used in the world, reliable translation or interpretation tools become indispensable for all information professionals.  The complexity of legal systems and legal terminology pose an extra layer of difficulty of legal translation and thus stimulate higher demand for useful translation and interpretation tools.  Although the importance and value of accurate legal translation and interpretation attracts more scholarly attention (e.g. here and here) over the years in the law librarianship field, there have been very few discussions on the tools of legal translation and interpretation.

The excellent presentation made by librarians Saskia Mehlhorn, Jim Hart and Don Ford at the 2014 Annual Conference of the American Association of Law Libraries helped bridge the gap.  The presentation was informative, critical and thought provoking.  Presenters demonstrated use of a variety of online tools to facilitate three different kinds of translation projects: translating a catalog entry, cite-checking a source in foreign language, and translating legal documents, followed by a thoughtful discussion of pros and cons of many top-rated translation software, such as Google Translate, Babylon, Systran, etc. Mr. Ford also surveyed useful bilingual and multilingual legal dictionaries both in print and online.  The audience shared insightful comments and experience with using online translation discussion forum, such as the language forums maintained by wordreference.com.  The presenters also make PowerPoint slides and an in-depth research guide available on the University of Iowa Law Library website.

All three presenters cautioned on caveats and limitations when using translation tools, in print or online.  For example, Ms. Mehlhorn pointed out that despite being low-cost and prompt, machine translation software “could not read context” and “has no consideration of cultural differences.”  She also shared concerns of privacy and confidentiality protections when using online discussion forums to translate legal documents.

Although the presentation only lasted about an hour, it raised many questions in the area of legal translation and interpretation worthy of further discussion.  For example, how to better utilize translation tools (without complete reliance) to provide accurate legal translation?  Determining sources of difficulty in legal translation will behoove us to find the answer to the question.  Professor Deborah Cao, in her book Translating Law, identified the following sources of difficulty: different legal systems and laws, linguistic differences, and cultural differences.[1]  As a result, I propose the following methods that would help us to use legal translation tools more effectively to provide accurate legal translations: to achieve a better understanding and a solid knowledge of a country’s legal system in advance (e.g. here and here), to consult a legal expert of native tongue if possible (e.g. here and here), to identify an authoritative bilingual or multilingual legal dictionary or an official legal glossary from the country of the vernacular (e.g. here and here), and/or to hire a professional legal translator if appropriate (e.g. here and here).  These methods and tools can help legal information professionals to better resolve issues relating to the diversity and complexity of legal systems and terminology, to appraise the linguistic sources of machine translation software and to appreciate the cultural differences.

[1] Deborah Cao, Translating Law, 23-35 (Multilingual Matters Ltd., 2007)

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