The Myth of Precision in Legal Writing

Whenever legal translation comes up, I always hear the same refrain, be it from students, fellow translators, or even professors: “Legal translation is serious business! What you write is legally binding, so your translation has to be perfect!”

And I roll my eyes (mentally, of course). You know why? Because this view of legal translation assumes that all legal texts are written with great care to begin with. Of course, many are. And yes, the original wording and the translation could have legal consequences. But that doesn’t seem to stop whoever writes the contracts I translate from using templates, forgetting to update them, leaving inconsistencies, and—I kid you not—even mixing up “lessee” and “lessor,” leaving the hapless lessee (or lessor) on the hook for unexpected costs.

I was reminded of this recently as I translated an excerpt from a legal defense, where the defendants were giving a point-by-point refutation of the claimants’ arguments. The text included this gem:

В-третьих, даже если бы ничем не доказанная теория Истцов о том, что международный договор вступает в силу в его “истолкованном” варианте с даты такого толкования – Истцы никак не доказали что кто-либо, кроме Истцов, до решения суда признавали или применяли то значение, на которое сослались Истцы. (text has been redacted for length and to preserve confidentiality)

As is, this paragraph translates to:

Third, even if the Claimants’ completely unsubstantiated theory that an international treaty comes into force in its “interpreted” form as of the date of such an interpretation, the Claimants have not in any way proven that anyone other than the Claimants had, prior to the court’s ruling, recognized or applied the interpretation cited by the Claimants.

Do you notice anything missing from that first clause? A verb, perhaps?

From what I gathered from context, the case was of international importance, where the claimant(s) and defendant(s) represented entire countries. Despite the high stakes, it would appear that the defendants got so carried away in tearing apart their opponent’s arguments that they forgot to proofread their spirited statement. How’s that for every word counting?

P.S. For anyone who’s curious, in this case I took the liberty of “improving” the text and rewrote the first clause to read “Third, even if there were any truth to the Claimants’ completely unsubstantiated theory…”

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