Equivalence is a common term in translation. In the simplest form, it denotes equality of meaning between a word or phrase in the source language (SL) and the target language (TL). Proficient translators achieve linguistic equivalence in the SL and TL by ensuring the words themselves have as similar meaning as possible. Legal equivalence takes this concept a step further. To achieve legal equivalence, the translation must be completed by someone who has knowledge and expertise of the legal matter at hand (property rights, sales agreements, patents, etc.) in both countries and ensures the legal meaning of the words and phrases used in the SL and TL are the same.
This task is a significant challenge because legal terminology is often based on abstract expressions of generalized words with a specific meaning when applied to the material’s content. Contracts contain provisions that can be applied to many scenarios, and different outcomes are possible based on subtle differences in words or phrases.
Marta Chroma from the Charles University in Prague Law Faculty describes the challenge in this manner:
“For a translator, the purpose of interpretation is to decide on the closest possible linguistic equivalent in the target language, which in practice often means that a non-lawyer translator without any legal training is stuck with the words and phrases of the source text tending to literally transfer into the target language that is written in the source text (a ‘word-for-word’ approach) and is unable to assess whether or not his or her final product makes sense as far as the law is concerned.”
Take this contractual phrase as an example: “You may be charged a cleaning fee if you do not adhere to posted or contractual cleaning requirements.”
American law often includes the word “may.” According to our legal system, “may” usually means “be allowed to, as in granted a privilege or discretionary power.” This is very different from how “may” is used in conversational English, with a definition closer to “might.” Translation of this into a second language could have either of these two meanings:
- You might be charged a cleaning fee if you do not adhere to posted or contractual cleaning requirements.
- The owner has the authority to charge a cleaning fee if you do not adhere to posted or contractual cleaning requirements.
In either case, whether or not the first party of the contract will charge the fee is discretionary, but the first option makes it seem more random while the second option more clearly indicates the owner has the right to choose.
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