Saturday, September 28, 2013

Tradition vs. Clarity – The Legal Writing Conundrum

As a legal translator, I am by definition a legal writer.  As such, I apply my history, learned tendencies, and natural instincts every time I tap that keyboard.  In my case, the following are the most dominant:
a     .      My father was a journalist and instilled me with the love of brevity, i.e. why use three words when one will suffice.
b     .      I went to law school (the University of Oregon) but never practiced law, meaning I understand but have never written original legal documents.
c     .       I am also an English teacher with a thorough knowledge and respect of grammar rules, making me someone inflexible in regards to starting sentences with but and and, to name a few.

This background places me in a dilemma when I translate contracts, my favorite type of document because it actually tries to say something even in omission.  On the one hand, I want to adopt the American “plain language” initiative.  I love to eliminate extra prepositions, archaic shall’s, and redundant legal phrases such as last will and testament.  In short, I want the average educated person to quickly read and understand what s/he is signing.
  On the other hand, I may be wrong.  I recently participated in an ATA webinar on French and English legal translating.  The speaker emphasized the importance of reiteration in English legal writing as a means of avoiding ambiguity.  For example, in the following sentence, the second, underline will should be retained to ensure clarity: The Service Provider will provide the required materials and will guarantee their appropriateness for the intended use.  The second helping verb screams at me, albeit silently.  Still, if it is more important to be precise than concise, it should remain in the sentence.

So, after listening to the excellent webinar and reading Brian Garner’s opposite thinking book, Legal Writing in Plain English (2001), I find myself struggling to determine a policy when editing other people’s translation.  Should I correct them when they are wordy and old-fashioned?  Should I change my proletariat style and learn Dickens-like English? 

In all probability, I will stick to my beliefs and prefer the informal styling of legal writing.  I may adjust my editing to be more tolerant to those that have more respect for tradition.  Still, the ideal way is the most difficult, involving two proverbs: there are many ways to skin a cat (figuratively, of course); moderation in all matters, including moderation.  In other words, I will strive to accept the individual differences in writing style as long as it does not break some holy rule, such as beginning a sentence with and.

I happily invite reactions from translators, lawyers, and others.

Sunday, September 22, 2013

McDonalds Thoughts

McDonalds is an American chain recognized worldwide.  Its trademark is branded in the minds of most of the world’s population.  There is even a foreign currency index based on the relative price of a Big Mac, quite accurate to the best of my knowledge.

Having eaten in its restaurants in three countries, not a serious achievement granted, I have noticed how much its image is localized even if the food is supposed to be identical everywhere. (Israel had to plant their previously unplanted potatoes for it.)

In the United States, McDonalds is characterized by its flexibility.  In the fifties and sixties, what distinguished it from the other hamburger joints was its extremely limited and inexpensive menu.  The original founders removed the messy condiments from the public area and created an industrial system to produce a limited menu, basically hamburger, chips (fries), and milk shakes, quickly and cheaply.  A family could pull up and get a meal, if you can call it that, in less than two minutes without spending lots of money.  Several decades later, with weight, sugar, health and competition issues changing the situation, the new McDonalds is more an anti-McDonalds.  The menu is complex, varied, and expensive.  Apparently, the new strategy is working as the chain is still making money.  So, McDonalds in the United States can be viewed as a mirror, albeit unwilling at times, of changes in American eating culture.

In France, MacDo, as it is known, entered a world dominated by the local café and restaurant.  Lunch, being the main meal, was French, long, and expensive.  Adding some traditional wine with it, a working person could easily lose two hours of the day.  As younger French needed to compete with those overworked Americans and Germans (whose work week is unimaginably more than 35 hours), they ignored the outcries of the French intellectuals and found a cheap, fast alternative – Macdo.  You’re in and out within 30 minutes and back to work.  True, it is not particularly gourmet or French, but it is American, which is cool to non-intellectuals.  So, Macdo in France is the youth’s practical revolt against the French lunch.  (I prefer the latter, but I am half French.)

In Israel, McDonalds is a goyish invasion.  It is certainly not Israeli, generally not kosher, and definitely American.  For Israelis trying to escape from their culture, there is nothing better.  To eat a cheeseburger under the Golden Arches (but not on Yom Kippur, yet) was and often still is a statement of identity:  you have gone beyond eating falafel and shwarma.  Today, even Arab villages have their local branches with the menu in Arabic (and Hebrew).  Despite or rather because of its foreignness, I have seen no lack of customers there. 

So, to paraphrase the Navy song, eat McDonalds and see the world from a different vantage point.

Monday, September 16, 2013

Plus ca change .....

During my family visit, I read an interesting book by Guy Deutscher The Unfolding of Language, published in 2005.  It discusses the development of language structure and vocabulary.

Among its premises, it states that languages are in a constant state of destruction and reformation.  He uses examples from countless languages, including English, French, and Hebrew.

The French examples were very interesting.  I learned that the double negative, ne … pas, is actually the banalization of an attempt to emphasize the negative.  Previously, the participle ne by itself signified the negative.  To add emphasize, people added terms like step or point, i.e. ne pas and ne point.  Overtime, people, the exception became the norm such that nobody remembers the single negative in French.

Another fascinating point was the evolution of the latin term illo, meaning there yonder.  It is a basic marking word representing the third degree to this and that.  Over generations, it evolved into two important words: the (le and il in French and Italian) and he (il in French).  If a speaker used in as a subject like in “There is a large tiger”, il represented the third degree of distance after I and you.  On the other hand, in the sentence, I kllled that tiger, the one over there, the could be used, dropping the unused sounds.

Finally, the origin of the French future endings was illuminated.  They copy the forms of the verb to have in French and not accidentilly.  The verb “to have” has the sense of causing something to happen.  So, if you make occur, it implies something will happen in the future.

This is only a small sample of enlightening tidbits and explanations provided by this book.   I now view the classic Parisian slang, “Je'en sais pas” not as poor French but natural development.  I recommend this book all those who love speaking and understanding languages.