LAWnLinguistics blog on corpus linguistics

I have already given a link to Neil Goldfarb’s weblog LAWnLinguistics – Not about the linguistics of lawns, but that was only in passing. My post then was about Goldfarb’s use of corpus linguistics in an amicus curiae brief to the U.S. Supreme Court.

The latest post, dated today, is Words, Meanings, Corpora: A Lawyer’s Introduction to Meaning in the Framework of Corpus Linguistics. He writes:

On Friday I will be presenting a paper at a conference at Brigham Young University Law School on law and corpus linguistics. Here is the description from the conference website:
‘Building on the 2016 inaugural Law and Corpus Linguistics Conference, the 2017 BYU Law Review Symposium, “Law & Corpus Linguistics” brings together legal scholars from across various substantive areas of scholarship, prominent corpus linguistics scholars, and judges who have employed corpus linguistics analysis in their decisions.’

That’s quite a coincidence because on the same date there is a talk at IALS A Practical Workshop on using Corpus Linguistics for Law by Dr Gianluca Pontrandolfo.

Goldfarb wants to show lawyers how to judge the meaning of words, and Pontrandolfo’s workshop is said to be of interest not only to legal translators but to those analysing legal language for other purposes.

Anyway, the weblog has a great number of interesting links. It was pretty new when I first linked to it.

With thanks to Stan Carey on Twitter.

Language and Law – Linguagem e Direito

I posted about the journal Language and Law / Linguagem e Direito when it first appeared. I forgot to report (from From Words to Deeds blog) that the latest edition is about legal translation. That is, the journal is always about language and law, but not specifically on legal translation. Actually I got part-way through the first article, so this is a rather rushed account.

You can download it here.

The first article, by Karen McAuliffe, ist:
Hidden Translators: the Invisibility of Translators and the Influence of Lawyer-Linguists on the Case Law of the Court of Justice of the European Union. Here’s the abstract:

Abstract. Since the mid-1990s, when Lawrence Venuti published his book The Translator’s Invisibility, there has existed, in the field of literary translation, a debate on the (in)visibility, power and influence of translators on literature and academic theory. This paper shifts that debate to the field of legal translation, focusing on the role of and work done by lawyer-linguists at the Court of Justice of the European Union (ECJ) in terms of their (in)visibility in the process of text production of that court and in the texts themselves. Data presented here demonstrate that, in the ECJ itself, as in other fields, translation tends to be “a largely misunderstood. . . practice” (Venuti, 2008: vii), but that recent shifts in dynamics within that institution are leading to changes in perceptions of translation and more ‘visibility’ for translators in the process of production of that court’s case law, although they remain largely invisible in the context of the texts themselves.
However, the invisibility of translators in this context necessarily leads to a certain amount of power and influence on the texts they produce. Since those texts, in particular judgments of the ECJ, are intended to have force of law and to be applied uniformly throughout the 28 EU member states, that power and influence is not insignificant. This paper analyses some examples of such ‘influence’ on ECJ case law, and thus on EU law more generally. If we are to develop a full and nuanced understanding of the case law of the ECJ, the power of translators should not be ignored.

I was interested in this article, more in what I found out about the ECJ translators than in Venuti (I have got Venuti on my shelf but he has remained there). I had forgotten that French is the main language of the court.

One of the biggest difficulties, cited by almost every lawyer-linguist interviewed, is caused by the fact that those drafting the judgments are working in French, a language which for most is not their mother tongue

The translators tend to be lawyers, and above all lawyers without translation training. The translation they do has the force of law if it is judgments declared to be ‘authentic’, and this distinguishes their work from a lot of other legal translation.

Very few (only three of the 56 interviewed) had any experience of translation prior to working at the Court of Justice. Thus, the translating aspect of the role of lawyer-linguist appears to be one largely learned ‘on the job’. While that does, of course, have benets in terms of developing institutional translation norms and maintaining the consistency of the house style, it also runs the risk that translation ‘guidelines’ are interpreted as hard and fast rules of (ECJ) translation:
“I had no experience of translation prior to coming [to the ECJ], but that makes it easier to follow the rules of translation here, which are quite strict”. (lawyerlinguist)

With regard to the role of translation: a case can be brought before the ECJ in any one of the 24 official languages of the European Union, and each case has an official ‘language of procedure’19. Unlike EU legislation, which is ‘authentic’ in every language version in which it exists, with regard to ECJ judgments only the version of the judgment in the language of procedure is considered to be ‘authentic’. For practical purposes, the ECJ works in a single language: French. When an application is lodged before the Court (in any of the 24 official EU languages), all of the relevant documents are translated into French.

Interestingly, not a single one of the 56 lawyer-linguists interviewed for this paper was content to describe themselves as ‘translators’. Those who did initially refer to themselves as translators immediately qualified their statement by pointing out that as translators of judicial texts, with law degrees, they are “much more than simply translators” and that having a legal qualification “set [them] apart from ‘mere’ translators”.

I haven’t actually finished reading this article yet. But I found it particularly interesting as I was once part of an initiative to get more freelances working for the court. I was sent a huge pack of really interesting information and previous translations. Although I was using the internet and translation memory myself, it appeared that the lawyer linguists had a database of prior texts and EEC/EU documents which was not made available to me, so I spent an awful lot of time searching for and pasting existing English versions of the legislation and case law quoted. I also put a lot of effort into adapting my first translations, which were seen as a paid test, to the style of the materials sent me, and yet precisely that vocabulary was found lacking and was corrected minutely in red ink. I was told by another translator that that is what the court lawyer linguists are like: they give you a hard time until they get used to you. However, the initiative came to an end when the lawyer linguist who was promoting it died unexpectedly in his late forties. It really was not much fun translating because the work was three-quarters searching to find out what others had done. But if the lawyer linguists have not been trained in translation or had practice in it before they are employed, they will have no experience of revising other translators’ work. However, this is just my guess based on very little evidence.

Another article I have skimmed is by Vigier Moreno, F. J. – Teaching the Use of ad hoc Corpora. It’s about the problems of creating corpora for students learning to translate legal texts into their second language, so it’s close to my own experience of teaching legal translation. It’s a down-to-earth account of the subject. It has attached text examples and a useful bibliography.

Forensic linguistics in court

At Language Log, Mark Liberman has a post dated 28.11 and headed Plebgate judgment, in which he reports on his experience as an expert witness, with Peter French appearing for the other side (Mitchell’s).

As is widely known, Andrew Mitchell, the government chief whip, was stopped by police from cycling through a pedestrian entrance in Downing Street and is said to have told the policeman ‘Best you learn your fucking place – you don’t run this fucking government – you’re fucking plebs.’

The language aspect was that there were arguments that the police officer in questio, Toby Rowland, was thought unlikely to invent such an expression, and Mitchell was thought likely to use it.

Mark Liberman had to report on whether the time of the exchange recorded by CCTV cameras was long enough for the words to have been spoken. Both he and Peter French came to the conclusion that the time was long enough. Liberman quotes Archie Bland in The Guardian:

You couldn’t help but be lost in admiration for [Mitting’s] forensic command of the detail: you’d need a memory palace to keep it all straight. And yet it almost all seemed irrelevant. A judgment that took over an hour to read boiled down to the fact that two phonetic experts judged that Mitchell would have had time to say the “toxic phrases”, and that he had told his deputy that he didn’t know what he had said very soon after.

More from the case – full report here – in the Language Log post. Also the commenters get very involved in forms of address in court, starting with whether it was right for Mark to address an English judge as ‘My Lord’.

Europa Centre for Languages

I was surprised to read about

The UK’s only indoor mock European town, complete with market square, café, shops and classroom. Managed by the Languages Adviser for Havering and with a team of highly experience tutors, native speakers and assistants, the Europa Centre offers the public and schools opportunities to develop prior learning or to begin language learning from scratch.

Pictures here. I doubt I could get in to see it, despite my prior learning.

Near Upminster Bridge station, no less.

The Romford Recorder visited the Centre in 2011. Quoting Dan Alliot, the head of the Europa Centre and Havering Languages Advisor:

“When they come inside it is like another world and a lot of them actually go away thinking that they have been to France for the day.”

When I go to Whitechapel I also feel like I’ve been abroad for the day.

If you don’t want a day trip to France and instead fancy a visit to Germany, or Spain, simple flip boards mean that the French town of Haricotville can easily become Rubendorf for Germany or villa Guisante if in Spain.

Why are litigation letters often so dreadful?

Why are litigation letters often so dreadful?

I picked this old article up from a tweet by Jack of Kent (David Allen Green), the author.

It’s reminiscent of the kind of tone I sometimes hit when translating similar correspondence by German lawyers.

The authors of this dreadful correspondence will invariably profess themselves “surprised” or “astonished” (or even “surprised and astonished”). They are “bewildered” and “confused” and sometimes “shocked”. If any of these assertions were literally true then the dispute resolution departments of many law firms must be in a constant state of noisy hyper-ventilation. It would be close to a national medical emergency.

The comments are good too. Anonymous writes:


I am dismayed and surprised to read this post. The allegations are bewildering when they are not misconceived and illiberal.

I await your response within fourteen days.

I wonder if Rupert Haigh’s Oxford Handbook of Legal Correspondence advises this kind of thing.

Corpora for (legal) translators/Textkörper für (juristische) Übersetzer

I did some months ago intend to write something about my experience of using corpora for translation purposes, especially legal translation. (See earlier entry and footnotes by John Kuti there)

At that time, it appeared the free programs I might have recommended had lost their value for me because they had access to fewer corpora.

Then again, one could get fairly similar results with a Google CSE (custom search engine).

I followed a webinar on the topic last year, and it ended with a contribution by Juliette Scott, who is a legal translator who is doing a Ph.D. on the subject. She now has a weblog, called Translation & the Law: from words to deeds, which is certainly a good place to find out more.

There was also a blog post by Kevin Lossner in Translation Tribulations, entitled A NIFTY method for legal terminology (I thought NIFTY was a play on NIMBY, but I found out it is the name Juliette Scott gives her method) – Here you will find the links to use if you want to help in Juliette’s research/find out more.

From a real-life seminar in London a couple of years ago I also have a most wonderful and useful book on the subject of corpora; Working with Specialized Language: A practical guide to using corpora” by Lynne Bowker and Jennifer Pearson (dated 2002 but still useful in 2012: you can look inside at amazon)

The basic approach to making a corpus of legal texts is to collect them on the internet or from other sources and convert them all into a format readable by the corpus program. This takes a bit of time. It also raises copyright problems unless you just use it for your own purposes. This was the problem with the free software BootCat, which had lost the right to use certain sources from the Web. The free software AntConc is for a later stage of the process.

Here’s an article by Michael Wilkinson: Compiling Corpora for Use as Translation Resources

I did have some rapid success in one field of legal English late last year. I sometimes translate lawyers’ websites and also extracts from directories in which law firms are described in glowing terms. Here’s an example from a firm I have nothing to do with:

CMS Hasche Sigle
Aufbruch in eine neue Zeit – und zwar mit Schwung. Unter dieses Motto könnte man das vergangene Jahr bei CMS stellen. Schon lange gehört die Kanzlei in Hamburg zu den führenden Adressen, jedoch monierten Wettbewerber, CMS sei zu breit aufgestellt, um im Markt wirklich hervorzustechen.
Diese Zeiten gehen zu Ende: V.a. die M&A-Praxis hat zuletzt einen deutlichen Schub erhalten und sorgte für Schlagzeilen, als ein Hamburger Team zusammen mit dem internationalen CMS-Verbund Takeda bei dem €10 Mrd schweren Erwerb von Nycomed beriet. Dies spiegelte sich auch im Markt wider, die Gruppe erntete in diesem Jahr spürbar mehr Lob. Gemeinsam mit Dr. Marc Riede betreute er zudem die HSH bei der Restrukturierung von Hapag-Lloyd.

It’s quite easy to collect this kind of thing in English from UK, USA and other sites and to search it for useful expressions. I might find more ideas for words like betreuen.

But I still have the feeling that a corpus would not help me with most legal translations, because I am not trying to create a text that looks like it was written in English about English law, but one that is clearly about a foreign legal system. If I created a collection of contracts, for example, every potential match of phrase would need to be checked legally to see if it meant the same thing. I have the feeling that I’d love to computerize my vocabulary work, but it would then bypass my own brain and experience.

Language issues in US Supreme Court/”Person” und “persönlich” vor Gericht

The US Supreme Court recently decided a case in which language was discussed on the basis of corpora. The question was about the words person and personal.

The decision was FCC v. AT&T Inc.
(PDF file), decided on March 1. This is a slip opinion, which means it has not yet been officially published. It has a headnote, which they call a syllabus.

The situation was that AT&T Inc. claimed that as it was a person (all corporations are persons), it could rely on the right of personal privacy.

Language evidence was presented to show that it does not follow from the noun that the related adjective has the same meaning, particularly in compounds.

In fact, “personal” is often used to mean precisely the opposite of business-related: We speak of personal expenses and business expenses, personal life and work life, personal opinion and a company’s view. Dictionary definitions also suggest that “personal” does not ordinarily relate to artificial “persons” like corporations.

I can’t help feeling that the Supreme Court would have come to this conclusion even without the language evidence. It seems pretty obvious to me. But the definition of person has been expanded in recent years, and at all events the Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit found in favour of AT&T.

We disagree. Adjectives typically reflect the meaning of corresponding nouns, but not always. Sometimes they acquire distinct meanings of their own. The noun “crab” refers variously to a crustacean and a type of apple, while the related adjective “crabbed” can refer to handwriting that is “difficult to read,” Webster’s Third New Interna-tional Dictionary 527 (2002); “corny” can mean “using familiar and stereotyped formulas believed to appeal to the unsophisticated,” id., at 509, which has little to do with “corn,” id., at 507 (“the seeds of any of the cereal grasses used for food”); and while “crank” is “a part of anaxis bent at right angles,” “cranky” can mean “given tofretful fussiness,” id., at 530.

To see what linguistic evidence was presented, you can look at Neal Goldfarb’s amicus curiae brief, which ca also be found via his blog.

This amicus brief was filed on behalf of Project On Government Oversight, the Brechner Center for Freedom of Information, and Tax Analysts. The parties have to agree to a filing. The brief lists the dictionaries and other works cited. A partial quote:

The following are the pairings in each corpus that occurred at least ten times, listed in order of
their frequency:
COHA: personal life, personal income, personal property, personal interest, personal experience,
personal relationship, personal problem, personal reason, personal injury, personal thing,
personal appearance, personal contact, personal matter, personal friend, personal power, personal
opinion, personal fortune, personal gain, personal history, personal letter, personal use, personal
view, personal question, personal tragedy, personal physician, personal attack, personal affair…

The brief relied on three corpora: the Corpus of Historical American English (COHA), the Corpus of Contemporary American English (COCA), and the TIME Magazine Corpus, all of which are the handiwork of Prof. Mark Davies at Brigham Young University. What we did was to search for the string personal [NOUN], in order to find out what words most frequently filled the NOUN slot.

This decision seems correct and well-founded, but I can’t help wondering whether all judges can be relied on to interpret corpus evidence properly.

Via Mark Liberman on Language Log, who links to other weblogs on the topic.

Palantyping and Stenography

I’ve mentioned Stenography before. Today Jack Schofield shows there is also Palantyping, in answer to this question:

I attended a gathering in Richmond Theatre, at which the then mayor and members of the Greater London Authority were available for public questioning. It was very impressive that their words almost immediately appeared on a screen courtesy of a voice recognition system. How is it done?

Lawsuit, Shmawsuit/Yiddisch

Judge Alex Kozinski and Eugene Volokh on the use of Yiddish in court decisions:

Searching through the LEXIS legal opinions database reveals that “chutzpah” (sometimes also spelled “chutzpa,” “hutzpah,” or “hutzpa”) has appeared in 231 reported court decisions. Curiously, all but eleven of them have been filed since 1980. There are two possible explanations for this. One is that during the last 21 years there has been a dramatic increase in the actual amount of chutzpah in the United States–or at least in the U.S. legal system. This explanation seems possible, but unlikely.

The more likely explanation is that Yiddish is quickly supplanting Latin as the spice in American legal argot. As recently as 1970, a federal court not only felt the need to define “bagels”; it misdefined them, calling them “hard rolls shaped like doughnuts.” All right-thinking people know good bagels are rather soft. (Day-old bagels are rather hard, but right-thinking people do not eat day-olds, even when they are only 10 cents each.) We’ve come a long way since then.

Mind you, there’s no comparison with US language outside lawsuits.

This is a 1993 article, Lawsuit, Shmawsuit, available online.

(Via Ruth Morris, who writes on Interpreting in legal contexts and Interpreting in the Israel legal system – and has published on the same topic in England and Wales)