6 common mistakes made in translation of legal texts – GDPR and more
Reaching wider audiences and increase in sales are normally the most obvious reasons to use professional translation services. As far as translation of legal texts is concerned, being on the safe side is another factor. Translation mistakes can have far-fetched consequences.
Many companies try to save both money and time when it comes to translation. It may prove especially problematic with texts of legal importance, such as the GDPR or terms and conditions. Unclear and inconsistent documents may lead to claims, complaints, costs and even loss of clients.
1. Disregarding legal system differences in translation of legal texts
How do we translate a company’s business form or its seat’s address?
For example: SUPER TOP Limited Liability Company is sometimes translated into Polish as SUPER TOP spółka z ograniczoną odpowiedzialnością. It shouldn’t be. Even though LLC and z o.o. companies are both private limited companies, they are not identical – they operate within different legal systems. Mercedes-Benz isn’t Mercedes-Benz LLC, is it? (The German automotive giant is an AG company; the abbreviation means Aktiengesellschaft.)
And how could the phrase umowa powierzenia przetwarzania danych osobowych be translated into English?
An inexperienced translator might opt for precision and use e.g. personal data processing outsourcing agreement. They would, however, create a generally non-existent entity. A professional experienced in translation of legal texts knows that in English texts, data processing agreement is idiomatic.
2. Calques: Administrator instead of Controller
Some words sound very similar, or are even the same, in different languages, and it’s entirely normal. For example, a calque itself is a loanword from French, which uses it in the same meaning. However, in many cases we might be dealing with false friends.
The definition of administrator (source: Lexico.com) is a person responsible for carrying out the administration of a business or organization. It seems to be accurate for a party administering data processing. However, the commonly used English term is a controller. It would be a mistake to ignore such widespread terminology. Controller is, after all, definitely not a novelty. The term is present in the 1995 directive on data protection, which was superseded by the GDPR.
3. Incorrect use of legalese adverbs: thereof and hereof, therein and herein
We can often encounter compound adverbs, such as thereof and hereof, in legal texts. They simplify referring to different documents and mean, respectively – when dealing with different contracts, for instance – of the document just mentioned and of the present document. Therein and herein are formed in an analogous manner with the preposition in – and so: in the document just mentioned and in the present document. Similar compound words can be created with other prepositions. The rule is identical and worth remembering.
We use here to refer to the text that we have at hand (for example one being translated). Conversely, there will refer to external sources – other texts.
4. Ignoring local varieties of languages in translation of legal texts
Although the national language of Brazil is Portuguese, its variety is much different from the one spoken in Europe.
An example: file. In Portugal it’s ficheiro. But in Brazilian Portuguese it’s arquivo.
What about British and American English? Watch out for dates!
The events of 11 September 2001 are known in the US as the 9/11 attacks. British media outlets often use it as well for its symbolic value. 9/11 is nowadays a name of its own. Nevertheless, Britons would write the date as 11/9/2001. Day, month, year.
For normal, “everyday” dates, leaving them in the same format would greatly impact the meaning: by changing deadlines, termination periods and such.
Adapting a text to different markets is not an area to save money on.
5. Inconsistent terms within one text
Translation of legal texts is not about using as many nice synonyms as possible.
A customer and client both denote a person or party that buys something. In Polish we would likely use the same word (klient) for both meanings. However, in English the key difference is the exact relationship between the one buying and the one selling. It’s an important factor in deciding which noun to use. If we pick one, we must stick to it.
Another pair: contract and agreement. In British legal English, the words are interchangeable. We can use either when translating a Polish umowa. But as far as it is concerned, we must decide to use one term and forget about the other.
6. Different spelling
This issue is often found in translations of documents such as terms and conditions into English, the reason being words like: realise/realize, licence/license, programme/program, catalogue/catalog or offence/offense. In all these cases the first spelling is the one more common in Britain, and the second – in the US. Some American variants may also be as acceptable in the United Kingdom.
When preparing a text, we must make a decision as to which norm to use and be consistent about it.
What should translation of privacy policies, terms and conditions and other formal texts be like?
Clear and understandable – even in translation of legal texts much attention is paid nowadays to using plain language.
Accurate and coherent – full, unaltered meaning of the original must be kept and internal inconsistencies are to be avoided.
Appropriate for the legal and linguistic tradition of the country it pertains to – so that the readers can easily apply the content to their situation.