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Foreign, Comparative, and International Law: Language and Translations

Foreign Laws in Foreign Languages

Working with an unfamiliar language can be a challenge. Here are some considerations and tips to break down the language barrier.

English Translations
  • Many important laws of major jurisdictions have been translated into English. Look for citations to translated materials in Foreign Law Guide, GlobaLex, and other sources (see sidebar).
  • Use official translations, if possible. These translations have been officially condoned by the issuing institution of a particular jurisdiction. Whenever you are not working with an official translation, be sure to note that fact on your work product.
  • Be willing to make judgments about what you will accept. A five-year-old, unofficial English translation of a law might be “good enough” for some purposes, especially when the current, official text is unavailable or there are no resources to have it translated.

DIY Translating
  • If no English translation is available, use a bilingual legal dictionary to translate words and phrases. These are available in all major languages and many minor ones.
  • In a Chrome browser, right click on a webpage and select "Translate to English" for a quick-but-rough (and completely unofficial) Google translation. Otherwise, the Google Translate website provides a quick-and-dirty translation tool.
  • Common English words may have wildly different meanings in a legal context (think: diversity, consideration, discovery). Words in other languages are no different. The legal language of any jurisdiction is not necessarily simple or obvious, and the Spanish you learned in college likely will not be sufficient to translate legal materials from Spain.

Legal Culture in Translation
  • Remember that legal terms exist within the context of their own legal systems. Even if you can translate every word into a language you recognize, legal systems are not exact translations.
  • Be mindful of the possibility that the same term may have different meanings and implications when used in a foreign or international legal context. For example, a "notary" in the U.S. has a lot fewer responsibilities than a "notary" in most Latin American countries. Part of FCIL research is delving into these basic terms and roles.

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