Differences in Translating Literary and Legal Texts

Translating literary and legal texts are two of the most common areas of translating. While they serve the same purpose, the ways they are translated and problems we may encounter are vastly different.

What are the characteristics of literary translating?

Literary translating is a type of translating for a wider audience, what the translator always needs to have in mind. Every language has its culture and history. The task of the translator is to translate the source text in the spirit of the language. They also have to keep the source message and the original meaning. The most common recurring mistake is literal translating. Many expressions cannot be translated literally because they lose their meaning. For example, the English have an expression »Every cloud has a silver lining«. The translator has to find a Croatian equivalent while keeping the original meaning. The acceptable translation would be something like »Svako zlo za neko dobro«.

What should translators focus on?

In such texts, the translator has creative freedom because they must make the text interesting to the readers. To do that, they have to take account of the author’s tone, humor, vocabulary complexity, etc. Furthermore, we cannot ignore the time from which the source text originates. That means we cannot translate archaisms from, for example, Hamlet with modern vocabulary because the translation needs to have the same effect on the reader as the source text. One more example of the translators’ creative freedom can be seen while the target text is missing a certain word or the author made up a word themselves.  It is widely known that the Eskimos do not have a word for war so in that case, the translator would have to use descriptions or make up a new word. A good example of such practice in Croatian language is the translation of the Harry Potter series where the word »quidditch« is translated with the term »metloboj«, which the translator made up.

How to approach legal texts?

On the other hand, legal texts require quite a different approach. Such texts need to be translated using a specific set of rules. The terms have to be consistent with regard to the previous texts, especially within the same branch. Very frequently, professional institutions set the rules which the translator must respect and there is no room for creative freedom.

What to keep in mind when translating legal texts?

Legal texts are usually not intended for a broader audience.In them, unlike in literary texts, we will not find figurative expressions, idioms, made up words, etc. because they must be interpreted clearly and unambiguously in every language. For example, we can take the European Union manual in which there are strict rules for translators. One of the common mistakes is translating the English word »amendments« with the Croatian term »izmjene«, which is in the spirit of the Croatian language, however, the manual clearly states that it has to be translated with the term »izmjene i dopune«, which is quite different. The translator has a large responsibility with such texts and there is no room for adding and dropping words and phrases or translating with words that have a similar meaning, which is all acceptable in literary texts. Furthermore, we always have to take official abbreviations, acronyms and syntax into account and we have to use a strictly formal language.

As a translator, you should always adjust to the text.

In the end, it is important to say that the translator has to adjust to every type of translating, whether it was literary, legal or something else. On the one hand, literary translating offers creativity, freedom and not so strict rules. It also allows us to »play« with language in a certain way. On the other hand, legal translating requires following strict manuals and using set and unambiguous terms and formal tone. To conclude, once again, without exception, the translator always has to keep in mind the purpose of the translation and the target audience.

Josip Kovačević

Josip Kovačević has an MA in English Language and Literature and Philosophy. He has been in the translation business since graduation. In his spare time, Josip likes playing guitar and video games, cycling, travelling and going to concerts.

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