More Than Just Translation

When court cases become multi-lingual, the need for a translator quickly becomes apparent to everyone. What is often less obvious, to the detriment of all involved, is the need for a specialized translator with legal experience.

Legal language is difficult to comprehend in one single tongue, let alone attempting to translate from one language to another! A lack of legal knowledge or experience can result in lengthy delays and even in massive mistakes or misunderstandings.

One example of this can be seen in an ongoing case in Ohio involving defendants accused of human trafficking and enslaving women for sex. This would be complicated enough without the extra dimension added by the fact that the defendants do not speak any English! Now, this case is expected to drag out for up to two weeks and be much less clear as a result of inexperienced translators dealing with complex legal jargon.

Such examples abound. One study looked at the effect of bad translation and inconsistencies between the English and French versions of a convention involving liability of airlines for death or injury to passengers and baggage losses.  Apparently, this has led to the dismissal of legitimate claims.

How much more this must happen within court cases, when there is pressure for a quick translation. If the person is not comfortable with legal terminology, it could greatly impact the understanding of the case by the main parties involved.

It is clear from these examples that simply hiring a translator will not suffice, especially for complex legal matters. A legal translator is more than simply a translator.

Language and Cultural Behaviors

Language is undoubtedly one of the most crucial elements of a society and, when mastered and used well, can also be a powerful agent to move that society towards change or progress. But could language actually shape the culture and how people think or behave? How much influence does our mother tongue have on what we see as normative behaviors and even on how we think and prioritize?

Many people who have learned other languages fluently report behaving and thinking differently in the other tongue; however, they often attribute the change to culture. While it could very well be a “chicken and the egg” argument, some researchers claim, on the other hand, that it may be the language itself that creates the behavior and, therefore, the culture.

For instance, one classic and controversial proponent of this idea was Benjamin Whorf, a linguist who studied the languages of the native peoples in the Americas and argued that because these languages lacked certain elements, such as the flow of time, their cultures had a completely different perception of reality and set of behaviors. Whorf took his research to an extreme, claiming that one’s mother tongue prevents a person from even grasping things that the language has no word for. This is obviously not the case, as seen by people who gain fluency in other languages. But it may speak volumes about the lens we see the world through and how we unconsciously prioritize concepts.

So, using Hebrew and English as an example, there are certain concepts given a word for which there is no word in English and vice-versa. The term “dafka,” translates closest to “in spite of” or similar to saying “of all things,” such as if you were to say, “Of all places, dafka, she chose to come here.” English speakers understand the idea a bit but we place much less priority on it than a Hebrew speaker. Another example would be the Hebrew word, “tachles,” which means “to the point and without formalities.” Tachles and dafka are two very important elements of Israeli culture that seep into Israelis’ behavior on a daily basis.

On the other hand, there are some English words that have no Hebrew equivalent. There is no Hebrew word for “coincidence,” for example-a concept that English speakers take for granted!

Anna Wierzbicka describes such words as “key concepts” or “key words” that reflect core elements of a culture. Guy Deutscher also illustrates this concept while focusing especially on color and the words for different colors, with a special look at the history of the color blue, in his Through the Language Glass.

While much more could be discussed on the subject, it does leave a few questions: How many concepts that we see as great priorities are a result of language? How much of our behavior is actually shaped by our language and its emphases? What happens when one becomes fluent in multiple languages? Does this broaden not only language skills but also one’s concept of the world and reality?

When Not to Use Google Translate

While Google Translate has revolutionized the ability to quickly and cheaply translate online, the over dependence on this tool has led to many a blunder in the legal and business world. Yes, it is a great tool when you need a quick, cost-efficient way to translate the occasional word or phrase. However, there are certain services that are simply best performed by a person.

The problem usually arises when the piece needing translating includes a lot of idioms, lingo, or legal or financial terms that Google simply doesn’t know what to do with. In one example that I found, a blogger writes about simply trying to translate a common word for “sheet” in French, taken from IKEA’s French site, which Google translated into “murder.” If she didn’t know better, she might think IKEA is selling “murder” sheets!

One well-known blog also demonstrates how a simple web page name, “The Linguistic Fun Page,” could eventually end up being changed to the "the linguistic pagination of the diversion” in Spanish. Also, one might wonder whether some of the mistranslations here could have been prevented, had they hired a professional translator! You can see how a simple mistranslation could cause a restaurant to post, “Don’t stand there and be hungry. Come on in and get fed up.”

On a more serious note, another issue that arises with Google Translate involved confidentiality. When translations are placed into Google Translate, violations of confidentiality can occur. According to well-known translator Jost Zetsche, online translation tools should never be utilized when translating legal material. Whenever text is sent to Google, it becomes Google’s property. You can read more in Google’s Terms of Service.

So, while Google Translate may be great for when you forgot that one word and need to send out an email in another language or you just need a simple translation job, for complex legal or business translations, it is probably best to turn to real people. You definitely don’t want to end up with one of these epic translation fails: 8 Epic Translation Fails.