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.

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