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Review of  Institutional Translation for International Governance

Reviewer: Lelija Socanac
Book Title: Institutional Translation for International Governance
Book Author: Fernando Prieto Ramos
Publisher: Bloomsbury Publishing (formerly The Continuum International Publishing Group)
Linguistic Field(s): Translation
Issue Number: 31.2046

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Institutional translation has received increasing attention in translation studies, especially after the turn of the millennium. Systematic research on institutional translation, however, has been rather slow to develop and has tended to focus on case studies. The most scrutinized setting of institutional translation has been that of the European Union institutions. The interest generated by the largest multilingual supranational entity in the world explains the growing number of contributions on discourses and legal implications of multilingualism. The aim of this volume is to enrich our understanding of institutional translation for international governance with regard to key aspects that contribute to the quality of legal communication in international organizations. A diversity of multilateral and EU institutions and methods are represented with a view of providing an extensive overview of current issues and research in institutional translation. The volume consists of selected contributions by guest authors and outputs of a Consolidator Grant research project led by the editor from the University of Geneva's Centre for Legal and Institutional Translation Studies (Transius), where the analysis of institutional translation at international organizations constitutes the primary line of research.

The chapters are organized into three sections: (1) contemporary issues and methods; (2) translation quality in law- and policy-making and implementation; and (3) translation and multilingual case-law.

Part One includes three complementary chapters that provide an overview of contemporary methods and approaches to legal translation.

Chapter 1: “Challenges to Legal Translators in Institutional Settings” by Susan Šarčević focuses on legal translation as an act of ‘transnational communication’, enabling institutional multilingualism to operate on a regional and global scale in supranational and international law. As a normative activity, translation of legislation requires maximum precision and is thus regarded as the most restrictive type of legal translation. This is especially true in the case of equally authentic legislative texts. From the legal point of view, all equally authentic legislative texts are presumed to have the same meaning, unless alleged otherwise. Equal meaning, however, is a fiction which is seldom achieved in practice. Legal translators, however, are expected to produce texts that are equal in legal effect. The translator’s main task is to preserve the unity of a single instrument with the ultimate aim of promoting its uniform application and interpretation in practice. In this context, the author discusses the central issue of reconciling the legal translator’s multiple fidelities and (sometimes conflicting) priorities, especially the commonly institutionalized preference for interlingual ‘surface- level similarity’ between the authentic texts of a single instrument, on the one hand, and the duty to end users to produce multilingual legislative texts that meet the requirements of legal certainty, on the other. The key to effective transnational legal communication is to strike a balance between foreignization and domestication of terminology, keeping in mind both the end users and the strategic importance of a term. Creating effective system-neutral terms requires considerable knowledge of national laws and legal concepts in order to know which terms could lead to misinterpretation and should therefore be avoided. In response to the new challenges, translators are called upon to take an active role as creators of transnational legal languages. Finally, institutional translators are encouraged to become effective transnational communicators who dare to go beyond the surface-level similarity. The author underlines the fact that interdisciplinary expertise is required to address the issue, without excluding the potential room for translational creativity.

Chapter 2: “Corpora in Institutional Legal Translation: Small Steps and the Big Picture” by Lucja Biel highlights the growing relevance and sophistication of corpus-based research in Legal Translation Studies (LTS) in general, and institutional legal translation in particular. After experiencing the ‘linguistic turn’ in 1960’s and 1970’s, and the ‘cultural turn’ in 1980’s and 1990’s, Translation Studies (TS) are currently undergoing the ‘technological turn’, combined with various linguistic methods, including corpus linguistics, leading to Corpus-Based Translation Studies as a branch of TS. Translations are analysed mostly with two types of corpora: monolingual comparable corpora and bilingual parallel corpora. A combination of the two types of corpora is required to account for two fundamental types of relations in translation: that of equivalence, addressing accuracy (parallel corpora), and that of the textual fit, addressing acceptability (comparable corpora). The chapter discusses recent developments and trends in Corpus Linguistics as a major methodological advancement in LTS. The objective is to outline recent developments and trends in Corpus Legal Translation Studies with implications for institutional translation practice and research. The author provides an overview of advances in corpus use and tools, and their benefits both for practitioners and researchers, especially in identifying translation patterns and generating empirical quantitative data.

Chapter 3: “Comparative Law and Legal Translation as Partners in Knowledge Communication: Frames as a Descriptive Instrument” by Jan Engberg builds on the view that institutional legal translation is a form of knowledge communication, and uses frames as a tool to describe and assess terminological decisions. The knowledge creation process supported by translation takes places when receivers from one or more target (legal) cultures construct knowledge based on the target text produced by the translator from a pre-existing legal text embedded in a source (legal) culture. The author presents a method for comparative legal studies with relevance for legal translation falling under this definition by demonstrating the application of frame semantic analysis.

Part Two: “Translation Quality in Law- and Policy-Making and Implementation” presents the evolution of quality assurance policies at the European Commission’s Directorate- General for Translation (DGT).

Chapter 4: “Towards a More Structured Approach to Quality Assurance: DGT's Quality Journey” by Ingemar Strandvik explains the rationale behind the increasingly integral, structured and explicit approach to quality, especially since the major EU enlargement in 2004. The author describes how quality assurance has evolved over time, with a focus on the impact of some major quality initiatives on the Directorate-General for Translation’s (DGT) current structure and work organization. Different aspects of the emerging quality management policy (quality control, risk assessment, evaluation of outsourced translations) and future challenges are addressed. The author presents the key concept of ‘fitness-for-purpose, which is at the core of new international guidelines for the translation of different text categories. According to this concept, quality is not an absolute value but it depends on needs and expectations of different actors and stakeholders.

Chapter 5: “The Skills Required to Achieve Quality in Institutional Translation: The Views of EU and UN Revisers” by Anne Lafeber, focuses on a key aspect of quality assurance: translation competence requirements. Based on a survey of international translators and revisers, she compares the skill-sets identified as recruitment priorities for the EU and the UN translation services, and examines the factors that may explain the differences found, including divergent structures, revision practices, working methods and domain specialization. Translation quality assurance at international organizations depends on the right balance between training, specialization, risk assessment, workload standards and revision arrangements.

Chapter 6:” Legal Terminology Consistency and Adequacy as Quality Indicators in Institutional Translation: A Mixed-Method Comparative Study” by Fernando Prieto Ramos and Diego Guzmán starts from a definition of legal terminology as ‘the most visible and striking feature of legal language (…), and one of the primary sources of difficulty in translating legal documents’ (Cao 2007). Decision-making on legal terminology in international organizations, however, remains largely unexplored. There is a need for more empirical evidence on the relationship between decision-making patterns (process) and the adequacy of the resulting translations (product) in the light of the relevant communicative conditions and the various factors that may have an impact on quality, such as working procedures, translator profiles, revision practices and time constraints. The focus of this chapter is on the consistency and adequacy of terminological decisions in international legal texts and their correlation with recommendations found in the institutional terminological databases. The authors apply a corpus-based, mixed-method approach that combines lexicometric (quantitative) and acceptability (qualitative) approach analysis to compare consistency and adequacy levels of translations of an illustrative term (‘due process’) into Spanish at the EU, the UN, and the World Trade Organization (WTO) over ten years (2005-2015). The findings point to correlations between product quality indicators, translation process conditions, and thematic specialization.

Chapter 7. “Comparing Multilingual Practices in the EU and the Canadian Legal Systems: The Case of Terminological Choices in Legislative Drafting” by Agnieszka Doczekalska also focuses on legal terminological choices from a comparative perspective. She pays particular attention to the legal implications of drafting multilingual EU legislation in twenty-four languages as opposed to federal, bilingual, and bijural legislation in Canada. The overlap of jurisdictions (i.e. national law and EU law in Member States, and federal law and provincial law in Canadian provinces) and regulated domains proves especially challenging and conditions the techniques applied to express EU autonomous concepts, and Canadian bijural concepts. The focus of the chapter is on legal terminology of EU secondary law and Canadian federal law that refers mostly to civil and property rights. The character of relations between federal and provincial laws and supranational and national laws influences terminological choices and legislative drafting methods.

Chapter 8: “Legal-Linguistic Profiling as Translation Aid: The Example of an EU Agency” by Colin Robertson outlines the concept of legal-linguistic profiling of organizations as a way of situating their translation work, including legal framework, language regime, specialist terminology domains, and drafting and translation methods. The proposed model is illustrated by the case of the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA). The purpose of legal-linguistic profiling is to provide a method for analysing multilingual and multicultural legal environments in which a text to be translated takes part. It assists in the identification of the range of genres of legal texts created by an organization and their functions. The model provides an overarching view of the operational legal-linguistic, but also technical environment in which the organization’s legal texts function, which can assist with terminological decisions and legal translation methodology. The text in hand may thus be ‘situated’ legally, linguistically, and semiotically within a wider ‘sea’ of texts. It may be positioned ‘vertically’ within a given language in relation to past texts, ‘horizontally’ across languages, and ‘inter-legally’ across different impacting legal systems and legal orders (national, international, and supranational) where terms may have slightly different nuances of meaning. In addition, legal-linguistic profiling helps to reveal the range of users of a text and the variety of legal environments in which it may be interpreted. This in turn has implications for translation strategies.

Chapter 9: “Translating Hybrid Legal Texts for Science and Technology Institutions: The Case of CERN” Mathilde Fontanet analyses how institutional domain specialization actually permeates legal texts at the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) as reflected in a parallel English-French corpus of representative cooperation agreements, safety documents, and contract adjudication proposals issued between 2013 and 2016. She describes the structure and conventions applied to each legal genre, and quantifies the density of technical and legal specialized language in order to compare the hybridity of texts. The results of the corpus analysis confirm that technical and legal LSPs cohabit in the documents considered. All the documents belong to legal genres, produce a legal effect and they follow macrotextual legal conventions. At microtextual level, when the legal aspect of a document is clearly more relevant, the technical language takes on a more archaic form. When the two LSPs are present, the legal LSP functions with a lower register, while the technical LSP uses a relatively higher register.

Part III: “Translation and Multilingual Case-Law” brings together four contributions on related aspects of translation and multilingual case-law. The first two focus on the case-law of the European Court of Justice (CJEU), while the remaining two chapters focus on the case-law of other international courts.

Chapter 10: “The Impact of Multilingualism on the Judgments of the EU Court of Justice” by Susan Wright provides a very thorough account of the complex language regime at the Court of Justice of the EU. She discusses how this regime conditions the drafting of judgements in French and their production in other European languages. She then raises questions on the challenges that lie ahead for the CJEU’s translation service in the light of competing objectives, including the future role of English in EU institutions. In the continuing effort to ensure that supply keeps pace with the demands of the multilingual system, the Court’s Translation Service benefits from the Court’s policy on selective publication and publication by extracts, the system of translation via pivot languages and the increasing use of information technology.

Chapter 11: “A Corpus Investigation of Translation-Generated Diversity in EU Case-Law” by Aleksandar Trklja offers a linguist’s insight into one of the key challenges, namely: how to ensure semantic uniformity in the highly multilingual context of the CJEU. An investigation of corresponding lexical items in a parallel corpus of all CJEU judgements published in English, French and German until 2011 serves to conclude that one-to-one absolute uniformity is virtually impossible for a number of reasons. First, any communication by means of natural languages involves indeterminacy because polysemy is an intrinsic feature of any language. Second, because relations between lexical items from different languages are non-symmetric and non-transitive, and third, translation-based communication creates lexical diversity which gives rise to indeterminacy of meaning. While translation of EU case law creates diversity, due to the specific dynamics of re-use of established exemplars, it also prevents this diversity from devolving into chaos and disintegration. The author concludes that translation-generated lexical diversity could be accepted as part of a more pluralistic view of EU law creation and reception.

Chapter 12 “Specificities of Translation at the European Court of Human Rights: Policy and Practice” by James Brannan provides an overview of the challenges deriving from the broad territorial jurisdiction of the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) and the interfaces between its two official languages (English and French) and non-official languages. Among other aspects, he points to the translator’s search for balance between consistency and idiomaticity, as well as to the relevance of internal cooperation with lawyers and judges. While only a small minority of judgements and decisions are actually available in both official languages, those selected for translation constitute leading case-law, often on particularly sensitive or new issues. The translator has particular responsibility in Grand Chamber cases where both language versions are considered to be authentic. The Court’s translators must bear in mind that their translations will be read and interpreted by domestic courts and lawyers across Europe and may in turn be translated into other languages. Ultimately, the relevant Convention standards will have to be ‘translated’ into reality in the legal order of each country; the clarity, accuracy, and terminological consistency of the official language case-law are therefore all the more important.

Chapter 13: “Comparative Interpretation of Multilingual Law in International Courts: Patterns and Implications for Translation” by Fernando Prieto Ramos and Lucie Pacho Aljanati addresses the implications of equal authenticity in multilingual law interpretation and translation. Patterns of explicit comparative interpretation are measured in the case-law of the International Court of Justice (ICJ), the World Trade Organization’s Appellate Body (AB), and the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU). The corpus is composed of all case-law involving multilingual interpretation from the establishment of each organization to 15 July 2016. Patterns of comparative interpretation are discussed in connection with their legal framework, the complexity of the relevant language regimes and other factors quantified in order to nuance our understanding of the differences found in comparative hermeneutic practices: the nature of proceedings, the initiators and motivation of comparison (including cases of divergence between language versions) and systemic factors such as case-load and political considerations. The implications for translators and institutions involved in producing and uniformly interpreting multilingual law are also raised.


As the first book on institutional translation with a focus on quality of legal communication, this work offers a unique combination of perspectives drawn together through a multilayered examination of methods (e.g. corpus analysis, comparative law for translation and terminological analysis), skills and working procedures.

The book provides a state-of-the-art overview of institutional translation issues related to the development of international law and policies for supranational integration and governance. These issues are explored from various angles in selected papers by guest specialists and findings of a large-scale research project led by the editor.

The volume is very coherent and its closely related chapters and perspectives offer a unique snapshot of the dynamic institutional translation landscape, with a clear focus on ensuring quality in specialized communication. The book also illustrates the increasing cooperation among institutional and academic actors, and the synergies that can emerge when they exchange approaches, experiences, and methods.
The editors have met the aims of this edited volume, as it both provides an extensive overview of previous work and expands the field in new directions which will hopefully inspire future research.

The book will be of interest both to legal translators, lawyers, and anyone interested in institutional legal translation.


Cao, Deborah. 2007. Translating Law. Bristol: Multilingual Matters.
Lelija Socanac is Professor at the Faculty of Law, University of Zagreb. She is the head of the Centre for Language and Law and the Foreign Language Department. Her research interests include multilingualism, contact
linguistics, (historical) sociolinguistics, critical discourse analysis and legal linguistics.

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