Four Things I Learned Translating Mexican Law

I have had many academic and professional opportunities to translate difficult texts, however, no other project that I have ever worked on can compare to the first time I translated a Mexican environmental law as part of a team. I completed this group project for my advanced translation graduate course and it taught me four very important lessons:

1. How to identify legalese

There are many things that make legal documents, such as laws, difficult to translate. As an amateur legal translator, one of the biggest challenges is being able to identify which word and concepts hold their “common” meaning and which are technical legalese. For example, in the section I was tasked with translating I came across recurso de revisión.

Por lo que se refiere a los demás trámites relativos a la sustanciación del recurso de revisión a que se refiere el artículo 176 del presente ordenamiento, se estará a lo dispuesto por la Ley Federal de Procedimiento Administrativo.

At first glance, I recognized each word, in fact, both recurso and revisión are often translated using their English cognates, resource and revision respectively. Easy, right? Not when you try to fit the English cognates of these two terms in context. What is a “resource of revision” and why would that need to be substantiated? This is a clear indicator that one must consult a legal dictionary. Unfortunately, this was not the last step. Once I found possible translations, I had to research the use of the terms in English to find the most appropriate translation in this context. After much research I found the most appropriate equivalent to be administrative-law appeal. I was able to find an English equivalent that fit the context only to face another challenge: inconsistency in the source text.

2. How to handle source text inconsistencies

The source text also used the terms recurso, recurso administrativo, and recurso administrativo de revisión, which required further research to ensure each term was referring to the same concept. To do so, at times I had to reference other resources to identify the exact process referred to in that section. Finally, after deciding that each of these terms was indeed referring to the same process, you must decide whether to introduce variation into your translation or use the same translation for all variations, which is something that may or may not be discussed in a glossary or style guide and will be important in terms of consistency throughout the 60,000 word document.

3. How to translate non-legalese technical terms

Another challenge—one I never gave much thought before—is that laws and other legal documents are littered with specialized terminology from other fields. In this project, the technical terminology was usually related to environmental issues. To tackle this issue, we must first understand the source, not just what the word means but why that specific term was selected. Then the same for the English term(s). For example, in this text the words preservación and conservación were both used, and we were tasked with first identifying the use of each word in Spanish in Mexico, then within the same subject matter, finding the terms used in English. Here we discovered that using the English cognate would be appropriate. However, there were instances where the cognate did not work in the target. For example, in English we hear water conservation, but can you preserve water or water sources? In these cases, we used a CORPUS and parallel texts (such as 33 U.S. Code § 1251) to determine whether or not “preservation” collocates with “water.”

4. The importance of Specialization

Overall, I learned that translating legal texts, such as Mexican environmental laws, can be accomplished provided that you have the right tools and knowledge. For very valid reasons, most translators are advised to specialize in a topic, and legal texts is one of many possible specializations. The amount of research and resource consultation required to accurately translate even a few hundred words would prove cost prohibitive to an interpreter that has no background knowledge. However, interpreters with knowledge and experience translating legal texts, are able to minimize the research and dedicate more time to translating.

Do you translate legal texts? Are you specialized in any other field? Share your experience and some of the challenges you faced in the comments below.

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