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International Organizations, JTLP, Jurisprudence, United Nations

Legal English Lost in Translation: Is There an App for That?

By: Cassandra DeCoste

Languages are living entities whose lives depend on the breath of their fluent speakers.[1] The total number of living languages today rounds to 7,100.[2] Of the roughly 7,100 languages, six languages represent the international community at the United Nations.[3] Fewer languages have an official place in the International Court of Justice (ICJ).[4] The international legal community benefits when unencumbered by language barriers.[5] Those attorneys whose sole language is English reap the benefits of English as a global language.[6] However, hurdles exist for those same monolingual attorneys who encounter non-English forms and phrases. After decades of progressive globalization, no reliable Rosetta Stone exists to offer fluid communication across linguistic divides. While technology promises ubiquitous translation services, much Legal English today remains lost in translation.[7]

The process of primary and secondary language acquisition provides a framework for discussion about the challenges monolingual attorneys face when getting the message across with machine translation. Primary language acquisition develops naturally.[8] A person learns his/her “mother-tongue” from birth through early childhood by listening and engaging with speakers around him/her.[9] Bilingual primary language acquisition exists globally, though perhaps it is less common in the United States where English dominates and bilingual communities are fewer and more concentrated.[10]

When the window for primary language acquisition closes, secondary language acquisition may occur.[11] The term as used here will apply to both language immersion methods as well as target language acquisition by way of native language.[12] The mastery of five linguistic elements translates to target language proficiency: phonology, the knowledge of the sound system; syntax, the grammar techniques; morphology, the study of word formations; semantics, the meaning of words; and pragmatics, the way language is used in a sentence.[13]

The semantic and pragmatic linguistic elements present the most obvious pitfalls for attorneys relying on technology to translate or interpret foreign languages. For instance, the English word “bank” carries multiple meanings. The semantics of the word “bank” must be evaluated not only for independent meaning, but also in the context of the sentence.[14] Stating, “The man went to the bank,” may imply a river bank or a financial institution. “The man goes to the bank to deposit money,” renders a clearer meaning.

Once the word “bank” is narrowed to the appropriate semantic meaning, the term still carries with it the speaker’s subjective meaning as well as the receiver’s subjective understanding. In Legal English, this process of semantic interpretation is canonized as the doctrine of noscitur a sociis.[15] Proficient and native speakers find the noscitur a sociis process nearly automatic. Novice or conversational speakers acquiring the target language may need to render foreign words into their native languages. For novice speakers, the process is clumsy and requires dedication despite semantic resources.

Though substantial semantic references such as Word Reference[16] exist to aid attorneys in deciphering foreign words in isolation, there is no simple way around a noscitur a sociis approach to language translation short of being fluent or working with a fluent speaker. In order to translate the word from English to French with a prominent multilingual online dictionary, one must examine each semantically different French term for “bank” to come to what may potentially be the proper term for the context within which the word is to be used.[17] For attorneys whose workload is great, the extra work required by the relevant technology is neither efficient nor practical. The time required to work with insufficient semantic technology deters monolingual Legal English lawyers. This deterrent fortifies attorney reliance on English as a global language.

Additionally, the pragmatics of a target language often stumps machine translators. Because language is the tool of both utilitarians and poets the pragmatic element of language results in elusive colloquialisms, interjections, and idioms. For example, the phrase “No me digas!” to a novice Spanish learner might mean, “Do not tell me!” To the hispanohablante however, the term is recognized as an interjection whose English equivalent reads, “You don’t say!” While foreign language forums might render the appropriate answer, these poetic intricacies of language require cognitive familiarity with a target language. This cognitive familiarity currently escapes machine translation.

To explore the concept, observe the following single Spanish sentence change as it passes through a human translator, and finally a machine translator. In its pure, native structure, the author pens, “No sé a qué fueron debidas aquellas fiebres, que pasaron como una ventolera dolorosa, removiendo los rincones de mi espíritu, pero barriendo también sus nubes negras.”[18] With the aid of a human translator, the sentence is Anglicized to read, “I don’t know what caused that fever, which passed like a sorrowful gust of wind, disturbing the corners of my spirit, but also sweeping away its black clouds.”[19] The sentence is naturally diluted by the human translator’s perception of the author’s intended meaning. Finally, the machine translator generates, “I do not know which were due those fevers, which passed like a painful gale, removing the corners of my mind, but his sweeping black clouds.”[20] This sentence in English makes little sense whatsoever. The current technology lacks the sophistication to translate moderately complex sentences.

The semantic and pragmatic shortcomings of machine translation are particularly relevant to attorneys in the international field. Within any language exists technical or specialized words and phrases used by subgroups of native speakers. This requires that machine technology be capable of localizing both native and target languages. Familiarly, American attorneys are a subgroup of Anglophones who use “Legal English.” Within the scope of Legal English fall “terms of art” and similar colloquialisms. To a layman, “terms of art” could have a number of meanings. To the Legal English speaker, the definition of “term of art” is narrow.[21] An English request to the French community via public forum for a Legal English translation of “term of art” may render sufficient yet imprecise results.[22] This result is still preferable to the suggested translation by machine translation, “terme technique.”[23]

Machine technology currently proves useful only for simple language transactions within the international community. Complicated translations are not yet rendered by the push of a button. .[24] A machine cannot yet adequately convey all linguistic intricacies. Fortunately, translation technology does continue to evolve.[25] Thanks to forum participants, and multilingual persons interested in furthering global communication, the internet will continue to provide a space for minds to meet. Technology is evolving into ear pieces which promise foreign language comprehension.[26] Of course, if the international legal community begins to view the mind as ,[27] perhaps primary bilingual language acquisition or second language acquisition will be the app the international legal community overlooked?


The author would like to extend her thanks to Professor David E. Landau, for helping her focus the content of my article, et grâce à Professor Mark B. Seidenfeld for indulging the conversation of meta-canons of interpretation.


[1] The Linguist List, List of Extinct Languages, http://linguistlist.org/forms/langs/get-extinct.cfm (last visited February 29, 2016).

[2] Ethnologue: Languages of the World (M. Paul Lewis, Gary F. Simons, & Charles D. Fennig eds., Dallas, Texas: SIL International 19th ed., 2016), http://www.ethnologue.com/statistics.

[3] United Nations, Official languages, http://www.un.org/en/sections/about-un/official-languages/index.html (last visited February 29, 2016).

[4] International Court of Justice, The Court, http://www.icj-cij.org/court/index.php?p1=1 (last visited February 29, 2016).

[5] See Jayesh M. Rathod, The Transformative Potential of Attorney Bilingualism, 46 U. Mich. J.L. Reform 863, 870 (2013).

[6] David Crystal, English as a Global Language, 3-4 (Cambridge U. Press, 2d. ed. 2003) (1997).

[7] The term Rosetta Stone is here used idiomatically, not referencing the widely regarded RosettaStone language learning program. For more on linguistic pragmatics see infra paragraph 7.

[8] Erika Hoff & Kelly Bridges, First (Primary) Language Acquisition, education.com, http://www.education.com/reference/article/first-primary-language-acquisition/ (last visited February 29, 2016).

[9] Id.

[10] David Skorton & Glenn Altschuler, America’s Foreign Language Deficit, Forbes.com, http://www.forbes.com/sites/collegeprose/2012/08/27/americas-foreign-language-deficit/#7c46bae8382f (only 18% of Americans report speaking a language other than English, while 53% of Europeans (and increasing numbers in other parts of the world) can converse in a second language.).

[11] Doris Baker & Scott Baker, Second Language Acquisition, education.com, http://www.education.com/reference/article/second-language-acquisition/ (last visited February 29, 2016).

[12] Id.

[13] Id.

[14] Id.

[15]  In Latin and Legal English the doctrine of noscitur a sociis, “a word is known by its associates.” Even the law cannot escape the necessary practice of linguistic analysis.

[16] Word Reference, http://www.wordreference.com (last visited February 29, 2016).

[17] http://www.wordreference.com/enfr/bank

[18] Carmen Laforet, Nada 33 (Modern Library ed. en rústica 2004) (1945).

[19] Carmen Laforet, Nada 42 (Edith Grossman trans., Modern Language ed. 2007) (1945).

[20] Google Translate, http://translate.google.com, https://translate.google.com/#es/en/No%20s%C3%A9%20a%20qu%C3%A9%20fueron%20debidas%20aquellas%20fiebres%2C%20que%20pasaron%20como%20una%20ventolera%20dolorosa%2C%20removiendo%20los%20rincones%20de%20mi%20esp%C3%ADritu%2C%20pero%20barriendo%20tambi%C3%A9n%20sus%20nubes%20negras (last visited February 29, 2016).

[21] Black’s Law Dictionary, Bryan A. Garner, 10th ed. 2014, (term of art (17c) 1. A word or phrase having a specific, precise meaning in a given specialty, apart from its general meaning in ordinary contexts. • Examples in law include and his heirs and res ipsa loquitur. 2. Loosely, a jargonistic word or phrase. — Also termed word of art).

[22] Word Reference, http://forum.wordreference.com/threads/term-of-art.1136505/ (last visited February 29, 2016).

[23] Google Translate, https://translate.google.com/#en/fr/term%20of%20art

[24] The Economist, Say What? (February 7, 2015), http://www.economist.com/news/business/21642187-technology-may-not-replace-human-translators-it-will-help-them-work-better-say-what?fsrc=email_to_a_friend (last visited February 29, 2016).

[25] Id.; Quentin Hardy, Language Translation Tech Starts to Deliver on Its Promise, The N.Y. Times (Jan. 11, 2015, 7:00 AM) http://bits.blogs.nytimes.com/2015/01/11/language-translation-tech-starting-to-deliver-on-its-promise/ (last visited on February 29, 2016).

[26] https://www.indiegogo.com/projects/meet-the-pilot-smart-earpiece-language-translator-headphones-travel#/

[27]See generally The Computational Theory of the Mind.


Edited by: William Eugene Tipton

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