The Challenges of Translating Legal Terminology
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The Challenges of Translating Legal Terminology

The Challenges of Translating Legal Terminology

Every legal system has evolved using unique legal expressions, so translators must understand these legal differences to provide accurate translation. When translating into Serbian from English one of the main issues the translator faces is the differing terminologies that are used within the legal systems itself.
However, this is not the primary challenge.

Rather official translations in Serbian make use of an English system that has been used in such frequency and strength that it cannot be avoided even though it is entirely wrong in English in usage.

For instance, the Republic of Serbia functions as a civil law system and most systems of law which are used in English speaking countries are based on common law. Hence, when legislation codifies a law in the Republic of Serbia, there are main laws that are referenced that substantiate legal codes. However, common law, being based on precedent as well as legislation and criminal codes, does not follow the same pattern. If, we for instance take, the term, “domestic law” in English it is has a much more general sound and is of a much broader sense than the Serbian equivalent – simply due to the fact that it does not exist in English. To make matters worse or more complicated, the official translation of Serbia’s “Porodični Zakon” is “the Law on the Family” which is at best funny in English and at worst nonsensical. This is due to the fact, to reiterate, that there is no one law in the common law English system, making the sound superfluous or marking something unknown, as well as that the right term should be “domestic law”. Furthermore, the right translation in referencing Serbia’s legal system in regards to using this law in a general sense, would be based on particularism as well. When writing a report on this topic, it would be better to write something along the lines of “Serbia recognizes cohabitation and common law spouses based on its domestic laws” as opposed to the standard and often non-English sense of “According to the law on the family, common-law spouses are recognized”. Family law would also be an acceptable substitute as it at least follows the rules of compound nouns in English, avoiding the “Law on the Family” concept.

Rulebook is another issue in legal translation, but not as challenging. The term “pravilnik” is frequently translated as “rulebook”. While this may be an accepted term in EU English and therefore, might be acceptable when dealing with certain but not all international translations (for instance, when dealing with EU matters, it is fine), common law systems have no rulebooks. There are rules, regulations, bylaws, ordinances and a whole other range of laws that may be passed by secondary authorities that have the legislative power to decide on areas of law that is delegated to them or otherwise not decided in any supra body above them. For instance, a “Pravilnik” dealing with banking administration would be “Regulations on Banking Administration”, unless there is a superseding term already used such as handbook or something else – i.e., something a body has created to use internally that they reference.

These are simple matters, in all honesty, but should be better kept in mind when translating legal texts and documents.