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An argument why non-native English translators can write texts in legal English with confidence

Bryony Howard wrote a post entitled Why getting a text translated from scratch is cheaper than proof-reading. 5 reasons why non-native speakers should not write texts in English”, arguing that it is cheaper to have a translation into Engish written by a native English writer from scratch than to proofread a translation made by a nonnative English writer. See here:

I agree with it, when it comes to translating texts into ordinary English. But I disagree with it when it comes to legal texts. Here is why:

I think it is relatively easy to write native pro standard legal texts (sentences) in English. Assuming a work-level expertise in law, all you need to know are the sentence patterns underlying legal English sentences (and terminology of course, but they should not pose problems, as there are world class dictionaries at hand).

What are sentence patterns? The „court + enter + decree + enjoining + person + from verb+ing” kind of thing, which you can find in sentences like:

"A decree was entered by the court perpetually enjoining the defendant from making, selling, or offering to sell any liquid medicine or preparation…"  or

"The court also enjoined the defendant, pending the final hearing of the case, from taking or instituting any action or proceeding..."

Once you know the above sentence pattern, you can write native-pro standard legal sentences in large numbers with confidence. All you need to know is a large number of them, say many thousand of them, and you are linguistically (nearly) as competent as a native pro.

These sentence patterns are rigid and flexible at the same time.  Rigid, because no part of it may be dispensed with, and flexible because you can add time adverbials, you can word it in Present Perfect or Simple Past, etc. to your liking, or better say, as required by the original text. It follows that  nonnative English translators can also produce native pro standard legal texts.

I doubt a native English translator can learn a rare language like Hungarian to the level s/he understands EVERYTHING in a text, literally every single bit of information, AND even texts in a specialised area like Hungarian legal language. (The same applies to native Hungarian translators facing another rare language and other legal language, of course).

I tend to believe that it is better to have a native Hungarian legal expert, who understands every single bit of a full text (in Hungarian), then - by using legal English sentence patterns as above - s/he can easily produce a native pro standard legal text as a translation (of course with due heed to terminology), than to have a native English translator who might not understand every single bit of the message of the Hungarian text, who will otherwise write a native pro standard text in English. Pinpoint accurancy, that is required in a legal text, we can agree on that I believe, and a native English translator runs a definite risk of misunderstaning something in the Hungarian legal text.

True, a native English translator fares much better in writing ordinary English texts than a nonnative English translator. No doubt about that. Please note however that native English translators must also familiarise themselves with such sentence patterns if they are to write legal texts at native pro standard, because ordinary English and legal English are different to a considerable extent. Adrian Briggs, Professor of Private International Law of Oxford University wrote in the preface to "A Practical Guide to English for Law” that

"Ordinary English language, and legal English language, have a close but complicated relationship. It is possible to be good at ordinary English but poor at legal English, and probably the reverse is true. The reason the two languages are different is that they have developed to serve needs which are separate and quite distinct; the use which a lawyer makes of the English language is specialised and peculiar to his or her profession.”

So a native English translator must also LEARN legal language to write good legal texts. So where is their advantage over nonnative (sentence-patterned) English translators in writing legal English texts?

Finally, let us consider who can make the best translation of a Hungarian legal text into English (other than in respect of terminology) on his/her own:

  • A Hungarian legal expert knowing literally thousands of legal English sentence patters? I think s/he can make a great job.
  • A native English translator knowing literally thousands of legal English sentence patters? I think s/he can make a great job too, with a slight or high risk of not understanding everything in the Hungarian legal text (meaning and context).
  • A native English legal expert, knowing literally hundreds of thousands of legal English sentence patters? I think s/he would make the best job, (i) were s/he to understand Hungarian legal language, which is highly unlikely, and (ii) were s/he to do translations, which is also unlikely.
  • Possibly the best translation could be made by a native Hungarian lawyer with a UK or US degree in law (JD or LLM), with a translation degree. But I do not think such person exists, as a person with two such law degrees could make tons of money in international law setting, and would not bother to earn a degree in translation to make money on a word-fee basis.

That being said, let me ask you what kind of national with what kind of knowledge do you think would make the best translation of a Hungarian legal text into English, on his/her own?

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