Lost in Translation of Legal Texts?

“Mistranslated literary works are one thing, mistranslated contracts – or worse, laws – are quite another. In the first case, you can have loyal followers of the mistranslated literary greats seething with anger and saying imprecatory oaths against your sloppy work and the professional critics having a field day mocking your translation skills; But in the second case, it could spell the difference between a happy life spent rediscovering the classics of literature for your client, or an unhappy lifetime spent in jail writing prison notebooks. No kidding there; a little exaggeration – yes, perhaps"

TO WIT
Lost in Translation

copyright (c) 2006 by Romel Bagares
All rights reserved

Of Stephen Mitchell’s translation into English of the German poems of that great poet Ranier Maria Rilke (who had also written in French), a critic once remarked, “it is easy to believe that if Rilke had written in English, he would have written in this English.” It is no empty platitude, considering that the purist among Italians, who would want their compatriot Dante Aligheri’s works read in the original, derisively refer to translators as traduttore, traitors. We might add to that the fact that another American poet, the late Randall Jarell, otherwise a favorite of mine, had earlier deigned to translate Rilke as well into English, even if he barely had a working knowledge of German. The critic Michael Hoffman, a German who has written for such great English-language publications as the New York Times, London Review of Books, Times and the Times Literary Supplement, seemed to have taken Jarell’s translation efforts in stride, remarking only of the poet as embodying the qualities of “immoderation, intransigence, exorbitance, a feeling of being out-of-this-world, or better-than-this world” – precisely the reasons, he said, “for which one reads Jarell.” Oh, now I know for what proper reasons I should read the late poet’s works….

Kidding aside, mistranslated literary works are one thing, mistranslated contracts – or worse, laws – are quite another. In the first case, you can have loyal followers of the mistranslated literary greats seething with anger and saying imprecatory oaths against your sloppy work and the professional critics having a field day mocking your translation skills; But in the second case, it could spell the difference between a happy life spent rediscovering the classics of literature for your client, or an unhappy lifetime spent in jail writing prison notebooks. No kidding there; a little exaggeration – yes, perhaps.

But evidently you can’t say to your client who lost his case before the International Court of Justice (ICJ) because of a mistranslated contract clause, “you know, it is easy to believe that if the French had written in English, they would have written in this English.” Well, not the French, mind you, who know no other great Romance language but theirs, and who were careful to put into the fine print that clause specifying that in case of disputes over the meaning of the terms and conditions of the contract, the French version will prevail. (Which is more often than not the case with international treaties, and which also means that to be able to get that far in the legal practice, you must really be a hot-shot international lawyer). Imagine if your client was the Philippine government and at stake was a piece of prime property in the Spratlys!

“Done in French and in English,” a holding of the ICJ would usually say at the end, “the French text being authoritative.” More or less, the same principle still holds true in such diverse international bodies as the World Trade Organization, the European Union, North Atlantic Treaty Organization and Federation Internationale de Football Association, among many others, although it can well be said that Spanish, and of course, English, are catching up. Well, there’s really not much you can do now about international law being defined until now by the French language; you can blame Louis XIV for long ago making French the fashionable language of the international courts but there’s no substitute for being able to actually and ably argue in French before the great judges of the ICJ. There’s no immoderation, intransigence, exorbitance, a feeling of being out-of-this-world, or better-than-this world here; there’s only the need to read and understand the treaty or contract in the original language in which it was written. And international law is probably one of the few aspects of international life that the English language has not yet claimed full sovereignty over. You can have a McDonald’s in Paris and – much to the chagrin of your average snooty Parisian – order a Big Mac in English with a Texan drawl (ala Dubya, the bete noire of French internationalists), but to really impress the judges of the venerable ICJ, please, talk to them in French when discussing the treaty in question’s traveaux preparatoire.

So much, then, for the Americanization of global culture.

As for me, I can only say to a pretty French graduate student working as a translator for French-speaking African delegates at a conference I attended on the International Criminal Court in The Hague, the Netherlands the moment she started speaking to me in French how I once lingered for an admiring look when I saw her picture on the website of her university's master's program in international law; and then in the next breath, I proceeded to tell her, in the best English I can muster, “you know, you really are lovelier in person than I thought.”

I think she understood me because after I rattled off my piece, she blushed red all over her lovely face, smiled sweetly at me, and then invited me to join her and her Spanish-speaking New Yorker friends for cocktails. In her lovely French-accented English, of course.

05/19/06

so...just in case you are lost in translation of legal texts