What’s the use of translators?/Wozu taugen Übersetzer?

Two news items are currently angering translators and interpreters, including myself.

1. The Bundestag committee hearing at which the majority of experts believe that German judges and lawyers who have done an LL.M. in an English-speaking country are well capable of conducting hearings on German law in English. The general opinion seemed to be that interpreters are not up to the job because they are not lawyers.

In an earlier post I discussed the problems in the first English-language hearing in Germany.

2. The decision of the Ministry of Justice in the UK to award court interpreting to one big translation company, regardless of quality. It appears that because interpreting using the professional system did not always work out well, the ministry decided that it needed to be ‘improved’. (But translation and interpreting will always run into problems – this isn’t a reason to give up trying to do things professionally). See petition.

It looks as if something similar is done in Ireland, where a judge criticized the quality of Lionbridge services.

Translation – I’ll concentrate on this to the exclusion of interpreting – is not a straightforward affair. On top of this, the customer is not usually in the position to assess the quality of the translation. A translator ought to have subject knowledge, training and experience. Of course, many translators don’t have all of those. Passing an exam is not perfect evidence.

In view of all this, it is surprising how many non-translators feel able to pass a verdict. Often, company bosses introduce supposedly cost-cutting software and procedures without consulting their in-house translators. Or they purport to know how fast a translation can be done or what translation company can do it, although they have no experience themselves. Users are widely unaware of the value of knowledge and experience. People who would not buy business equipment from their own trade without consulting seem to assume that anyone selling translation services knows what they are doing.

So what is translation? It is not simply a matter of knowing two languages. Subject-matter knowledge is necessary too. When I do a legal translation, I start off with a German text, often written by a German lawyer. I need to understand it, and that includes understanding if a non-standard term has been used – from my subject-matter knowledge I know what is meant. That means I can do further research more easily, because the non-standard term can’t be looked up: it is the standard term I will find. I know, however, when the law dictionaries are wrong or misleading – because bilingual dictionaries just remind you of what you already know: if they throw up a new term, it has to be researched. Bilingual specialist dictionaries are also notoriously unreliable. I also need to know when there is a mistake in the source text, which is quite common. It might be a contract where a bit has been omitted, it might be a judgment where the typist has not understood the dictation correctly.

I also need to know about language conventions – how things are expressed in English and in German, in various stylistic registers. About punctuation differences, hyphenation, whether to trust hyphenation software. These are all areas that may not be familiar to someone who speaks two languages but doesn’t work with texts.

It seems to me that those experts who think their year abroad makes them capable of handling oral and written legal English have already made their minds up. If an interpreter makes a mistake, this proves to them that only lawyers do not make mistakes: a conclusion that doesn’t follow the rules of logic. In fact, a legal interpreter or translator needs knowledge of both law and translation. Both can come in different forms, and both require training and practice.

My personal qualifications are: I am a Germanist who qualified as a solicitor in the UK and spent twenty years teaching DE>EN legal translation and other useful subjects in Germany (background studies and English grammar have proved particularly useful, so has teaching MultiTerm and word processing). I have no formal qualification in German law: I passed the Bavarian and Hesse exams for translators and the Hesse exam for interpreters, and there was a German law element in the Bavarian exam. I also attended classes given by German public prosecutors and judges, but I learnt most from all the research I had to do to actually teach legal translation. There are many roads to translation, and you will find lawyers saying a translator has to be a lawyer, or that you need to be qualified as a lawyer in source and target jurisdictions, and translators saying they have done the law courses required in Hamburg or North-Rhine Westphalia, or court terminology in Bavaria, or that you have to do a translatation degree or postgraduate course. Personally I don’t think there are any specific qualifications that prove ability.

8 thoughts on “What’s the use of translators?/Wozu taugen Übersetzer?

  1. That’s a good point you made. “Translation and interpreting will always run into problems – this isn’t a reason to give up trying to do things professionally.” Nothing/nobody is perfect, of course, but I say never touch a running system.

    • Well, obviously not all translators and interpreters are competent. But then not all lawyers are competent, yet this doesn’t result in claims that legal training is useless.

  2. The people at Translegal (who I’m not connected with on a business level) have a theory that a separate new profession will eventually emerge – that of the “*legal linguist*”

    However, I haven’t seen much thought anywhere yet about how such a class of person might appear.

    • Interesting. I wonder what they mean. It seems to overlap with lawyer linguists, for instance at the EU institutions, who are lawyers who work as translators, and forensic linguists, who study linguistics and help with criminal investigations and court cases with language issues.

  3. I wonder whether the Bundestag committee members would be so laid back about the idea of, say, UK or US courts conducting hearings on English law in German, involving lawyers and judges who have spent a couple of years in Germany? I’m hardly astonished by the arrogance and ignorance of the Bundestag committee, but it’s disappointing nonetheless.

    I wonder how they’re going to resolve the liability issue: for example, if one party loses a case because either a judge or a lawyer clearly doesn’t have a sufficient grasp of English. Is it possible to appeal a ruling because of the personal incompetence of a judge? Equally, can a lawyer be sued for having an inadequate command of English?

    We have similar problems in financial translation, of course, as there’s a school of finance people (mainly accountants) who believe that translators aren’t up to the job because they’re not accountants. I see it from the opposite perspective: accountants aren’t up to it (translating) because they’re not financial translators. Of course I’m not denying that some German accountants most definitely have an excellent command of English (albeit far fewer than actually *think* they do), but that doesn’t mean that they can actually translate into English at the level of a top-flight financial translator.

    Curiously enough, my experience is that the better an accountant’s English is, the more likely they are to appreciate the need for a really good translator.

    • There are a number of points I’d like to come back to in this. Someone mentioned the general view that English is easy. I agree with your last point too.

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