What About Legal Translation
from English to Tagalog

But who can deliver effective legal translation except a lawyer? Technical demand for accuracy forms only half of the burden for non-lawyer translator. A certain percentage of understanding meaning is putting your translator's spirit in a virtual court room or in a law office or in a litigation or even in a consultation with a law-breaker. Context and culture is uppermost but equally important is how expertly language is used, misused, abused, or made fun of by legal minds. There are too many languages in the world, but the jargon of lawyers is itself a babel of interpretation.

TO WIT
copyright (c) 2006 by Romel Bagares. All rights reserved

When A "Shall" Becomes A "May"

At the height of the botched impeachment case against him, I thought – given the jokes about his mastery (or the lack of it) of the English language – the deposed president Joseph Estrada would have chosen anytime to be impeached rather than go through the ordeal of having to spell "gobbledygook" correctly. But all that legal, uh, gobbledygook thrown into the air with relish by lawyers from both the prosecution and the defense panels apparently impressed not a few impressionable young people to enter law school, if anecdotal evidence from the UP College of Law admissions panel's interviews with freshmen hopefuls over the last few years is to be believed.

And not even a certain prosecutor's propensity to refer to his witness as "Madame wet-nessss" could dampen their enthusiasm for such a Gnostic profession as the Law. Indeed, if it has its own share of colorful characters with a flair for colorful language, that's because the legal profession is, first of all, a profession with language as its primary tool. In fact, it's a priesthood by itself, with its own systematic theology to explain the ends and means of the Law, as well as ritual incantations – or its own magic words – used to open or close doors to finitude. If they are accused of the atrocious murder of the English language, their ready defense, talk of grammatical proficiency aside, is that one must go not for the letter that killeth, but for the spirit that vivifieth. As the late lamented Derrida would say, it's all theology secularized, you see – with a dash of English from the Authorized Version to boot. Bend, not break , is of course a rule only those endowed with creative minds – like lawyers – can think of. You bend grammar a little, to allow for the intent of the law to take its proper course. Or, to get what you want out of the law.

Well, the word creative is really an understatement; English professors may raise a pother no end over the finer points of grammar all day long but lawyers, ah, lawyers, will always have their way with it. For instance, the Corpus Juris Secundum – something of a Bible for lawyers reared in the English common law – says: "the ordinary rules of grammar will be applied for the purpose of ascertaining the meaning of a statute, but they are not controlling when an intent in conflict therewith is disclosed, and must therefore be disregarded so as to give effect to the legislative intention."

Ah, when it comes to matters of grammar, honorable members of Congress, it seems, just can't be trusted with how they differentiate, for instance, between a shall and a may. Now, I'm not an English major, but it certainly amused me no end when, in a freshman law student's course on Legal Method, I read a case where the Philippine Supreme Court said there are instances when the imperative shall takes on the permissive meaning of the word may. "In common or ordinary parlance, and in its ordinary signification, the term ' shall' is a word of command, and one which has always or which must be given compulsory meaning; as denoting obligation," so said the Supreme Court in one breath. But in the next breath, it added, "however, the rule is not absolute; it may be construed as 'may', when so required by the context or by the intention of the statute."

In the scheme of legal hermeneutics, a shall is not always a shall; it may be construed as a may, depending on what ends the Supreme Court deems it fit to pursue. That's legal method for you, and I guess, that, too, is enough to raise the grammarian's blood to boiling point.

I can well sympathize with my English professor if, after all these years of pent-up emotion and frustration, she suddenly declares, with the words penned by the Great Bard from Stratford-upon-Avon: "first thing we do, let's kill all the lawyers" (Henry VI, Part II, IV, ii).

Now that's a quote from Shakespeare's Henry VI, and contrary to popular misconception, these words were uttered not by litigants disgruntled with the slow grind of justice but by conspirators in Cade's Rebellion, who planned to overthrow the English government and put up a virtual dictatorship. Shakespeare was actually praising the lawyers here as protectors of a system of liberty, who must be eliminated first before such a rebellion could flourish. Only that in the case of my English professor, she will be mouthing it out on behalf of fellow grammarians who hate to their guts lawyers a thousand times guilty of murdering the language grammarians like her so love. Not Guilty, Your Honor.

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