Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Legally Put

As a legal translator, I am not intimidated by legal language, but I recognized that even most native speakers regard the language of Shakespeare and contracts in the same light: sounds impressive but what the hell does it mean?  Who, aside from attorneys, paralegals, and legal translators, actually reads all those words in small print?

However, there is a surprisingly variety of styles in legal writing, depending on the country, purpose of document, age of attorney, and general attitude of the writer.  Two examples of this variety involved the omnipresent legal concepts of need and permission.

All contacts describe the obligations and rights of a party (not including having a good time, of course).  The issue is how to express it.  The following sentences all technically express the same requirement:
a.      The Renter shall pay the rent to the Lessor on the first day of each month.
b.      The Renter will pay the rent to the Lessor on the first day of each month.
c.       The Renter commits to paying the rent to the Lessor on the first day of each month.
- Added note:  On a sugestion from Janet Lerner, a fourth option is "The Renter is to pay the rent..."  Also very nice in my opinion.

Clearly, all three are clear and identical in meaning, with the difference being in the verb.  The use of shall as a determinative, not future, is based on the previously accepted distinction, at least by English teachers, between will and shall.  According to this archaic usage, the conjugation I shall, you will, s/he will, we shall, they will expresses the future while the conjugation I will, you shall, s/he shall, we will, they shall expresses a lack of choice.  In the case in hand, “The Renter shall…” means that the Renter has no choice.  Alas, for better or worse, I strongly doubt that many native speakers in the United States under the 30 know about this quaint rule.  In more modern English, the second sentence “The Renter will…” also expresses obligation.  The third option is less attractive both because it adds words and sounds like a translation.  However, language is a matter of taste sometimes.    As my father used to be a journalist, he ingrained in me a hatred of wasted words.

The second example involves expressions regarding the right to do something:
a.      The Lessor is entitled to cancel the agreement at any time.
b.      The Lessor has the right to cancel the agreement at any time.
c.       The Lessor may cancel the agreement.

Regarding the first, the word entitled is generally used for children and land purchases.  While technically correct, it is less applicable in this sentence.  The second is classic legal language, used in countless contracts.  However, the third is much less intimidating to the average reader and means the exact same thing.  There are disputes whether legal language should “go down” to the people.  The U.S. Congress has passed legislation ordering that.  Therefore, for reasons of simplicity, efficiency, and accessibility, I actually prefer the third option, although many lawyers would probably disagree with me.

So, no matter how you wish to legally put it, variety is the spice of life, or at least disputes, in the legal world.

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