A Brief History of Legal Translation

A Brief History of Legal Translation

The development of the role of the legal translator is an interesting one in the history of translation. The relationships between cultures and the evolution of language have had an important role in shaping the status of the legal translator.

Justinian and the Corpus Juris Civilis

The history of diplomatic and legal translation extends back over 3000 years. The earliest known rule to regulate legal translation is contained in Justinian's Corpus Juris Civilis. As Roman Emperor,  Justinian accorded primacy to Latin. Only word-for-word translations into Greek were permitted to preserve the integrity of the Corpus juris. This approach mimicked the approach of the Church, which only permitted such translation of the 'divine texts'.

The rise of France

As the Roman Empire's influence waned, so did the prevalence of Latin as an international language. Other languages, driven by military, cultural and economic factors, came to the fore, particularly French. French gained international recognition and gradually replaced Latin as the world's dominant international language. As France expanded her empire, French Scholars argued that the grammatical rules of the target language should be respected. With the development of the Code Napoleon, this position was ratified.

As international trade, commerce and empire-building expanded in the 18th and 19th centuries, the need for 'good' translations was recognised. Gradually, legal translators began to use the rules of the target language.

The Swiss debate

The promulgation of the Swiss Civil Code brought the "Letter" v "Spirit" debate into focus. Given Switzerland's multilingual culture, the code had to be translated into German, French, and Italian. Two distinct groups emerged. One of these wished to respect the sanctity of the German version and wanted interpretation to be a matter for judges, not translators. The other group held that languages enjoy equal prestige and wished the translations to uphold the "spirit" of the document.

Hong Kong's bilingual legislative system

Hong Kong's legal system was modelled on English Common law, and legislation was originally drafted in English. However, the majority of the population speaks Cantonese Chinese. As such, most of the population was not literate in English, which deprived them of their ability to properly understand the law. 

The Hong Kong Government made both English and Chinese official languages in 1974 and developed a biliterate legislative plan in 1986. This meant translating more than 20,000 pages of legislation into Chinese. It also meant drafting new legislation in both languages.

This presented challenges in that many English legal terms have no Chinese equivalent. Since 1989, legislation has been "co-drafted". This involves translators and drafters working together to create new legislation. This approach also gives judges a series of principles to comply with when making decisions to give effect to the law's true intent.

An important role

The role of the legal translator is a particularly interesting one in the history of translation generally. It reflects global history, as well as the changing status of languages themselves. The relationship between cultures and the dominance of certain cultures over others can also be seen in this history. As the world shrinks further and we become more aware of the status of other languages, the importance and necessity of legal translators will only continue to grow. 

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