Sunday, July 5, 2009

French to English Legalese, Part 1

For this blog and the next two blogs, we'll take a new theme - law.

legalese1 I used to work as a paralegal in a small Montreal litigation firm.  Despite the firm's size, there were numerous procedures to write for the lawyers' signatures and eventually, for pleading before the judge.  Writing legal procedures was a challenging task but I enjoyed it immensely. 

It was while I worked as a paralegal that I was forced to hone my French to English skills.  I managed well at the written and verbal levels, but the auditory level was where I had to roll up my sleeves and do some hard work.  I would sit with my boss at the judge's chambers and try to make sense out of the arguments and counter-arguments.  My first six months as a paralegal was an uphill battle, all because I was rusty in the listening department.   I had to stop listening to English radio and switch to a French radio station just to get les oreilles used to listening to the sounds. 

At first I thought that if I could read, write and speak some French, I'd have no problem listening and understanding.


It was a rude awakening.  Listening was a different ballgame - I stumbled often especially when I had to do a lot of listening in a court of law!

I remember one morning when my boss was arguing before His Lordship about a case.  He paused and then looked at me.  Even the judge had his eyes on me.  I wondered if it was my posture so I shifted my weight, feeling suddenly ill at ease.   Then he whispered something to the judge and walked towards me. 

"Didn't you hear?  I need to show the affidavit!"

"Ah, the affidavit.  Yes of course."

The province of Quebec is the only province that uses Civil Law, which is patterned after the legal system of France.  The other Canadian provinces operate under Common Law after the British legal system.

A look at some of those French to English terms:

disposition générale general provision
tutelle légale legal tutorship
curatelle curatorship
dissolution et liquidation des personnes morales dissolution and liquidation of legal persons
prestation compensatoire compensatory allowance
demande et la preuve application and proof
union civile civil union
renonciation renunciation
testaments wills
testament olographe holograph wills
droit au partage right to partition
propriété property
usufruit usufruct
servitudes servitudes
fiducie trust
compte annuel annual account
consentement consent

Legal translation can be tricky.  The idea is to consistently think "context."  Depending on the context, the type of law (insurance, divorce and family, banking, maritime) and the circumstances, various terms may apply.  Take "property" as an example.  It could be propriéte or des biens (collective) or domicile

In legal translation, context should be the deciding factor when choosing the appropriate equivalent.  This rule is valid as well for other domains of activity.


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