02 Nov

Professional translators, beyond their mastery of language, must also specialize in a particular field of expertise.

This can range from the medical, legal, banking, and even self-help industries.

All of these industries are linked to a range of documents, that serious translators must become familiar in all their languages.

Legal document translations can range from immigration documents, depositions, marriage certificates, affadavits, and so on.

But perhaps one of the most challenging aspects of legal translation, and what sets it apart, is contending with the different legal systems the languages are connected to.

Translators who tackle legal texts require robust knowledge of terminology or legalese in their source and target languages in addition to the legal system foundations their languages evolve within. 

A common challenge that arose in my postgraduate legal translation studies was coming up with innovative solutions to translate institutions and positions that did not exist in the legal system of the target language.

For example, in Spanish, and countries with the Romano-Germanic Civil Law System, el procurador, who is roughly a member of the General Councils, is not a figure in the English language or the Anglo-American, Common Law System.

These translations often required an explanation of the term, and thus sound legal knowledge to ensure accuracy.

Roughly speaking, there are 5 major legal systems across the world. Foundational knowledge of these 5 is useful for translators offering legal translation services and those looking to specialize.

5 Major Legal Systems


1. Anglo-American System, Common Law

This legal system is the bedrock of legal system in the UK. Naturally, it is also present in former British colonies, including Canada, the US, India, Pakistan, Israel, and Australia.

In this system, laws are derived from precedence, as in, judicial decisions made in similar previous cases and instances.

The internal logic of the Common Law system is stare decisis, giving judges the responsibility to apply evidence to common principles derived from legal precedent, and in essence, provide consistency with the common rules of the law.

The common rules of the law, besides judicial precedent, are also derived from constitutions, administrative regulations, and statutes.

It is also worth mentioning that the peer jury is an important pillar in the Common Law system.

The Common Law system is made up of linguistic communities including English, French, Hebrew, Indigenous languages, and the 800+ languages in subcontinental India, among others.

2. Romano-Germanic Law System, Civil Law

This legal system is essentially based on the Twelve Tables of the Roman Empire, later compiled in the Corpus Juris Civilis. Naturally, it is the legal system of Continental Europe, Southern Europe, Latin America, Sub-Saharan Africa, and even Turkey.

In fact, the Napoleonic Code of 1804 and the German Civil Code were models that set the foundation for modern civil law systems across the world.

The internal logic of the Civil Law system is the application of the Civil Code to a set of facts. This runs contrary to the Common Law system that aligns facts with judicial precedent.

Legislation and statutes expand and interpret the application the civil code system principles.

The Civil Law system is comprised of language communities ranging from Spanish, French, English, Portuguese, Italian, Turkish, and German.

3. Islamic Law System, Shari’a Law

The Islamic Law System is present in the countries with high percentages of Muslims or governments with Islam as the central state religion. Muslims make up approximately 20% of the world’s population.

Shari’a Law is derived from the sayings of the Prophet Muhammad found in the Koran, called Sunnahs and Hadiths.

Although Civil and Common Law systems continue to evolve, the Islamic Law System froze in its current state in 10th century AD, when Islamic scholars decided that no more independent reasoning or changes could be applied to Shari’a Law.

Pertinent to financial document translations, or commercial law, Islamic Law forbids unjustified profit from goods, including the application of interest on services and loans.

This system is concentrated in the Middle East and North Africa, including, Iran, Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia, the UAE, among others, with Arabic, Farsi, Darsi, Urdu, and French-speaking communities present.

4. Hindu Law System

Similar to Muslims, Hindu’s make up 20% of the world’s population, and 80% live in India, where the Hindu Law system is in place, in addition to countries with notable Hindu populations; Tanzania, Burma, Uganda, and Pakistan.

Interestingly, practicing Hindus apply Hindu Law regardless of their nationality. This is similar to Shari’a Law, as both of these legal systems are based on religion, therefore, individuals apply the rules to themselves regardless of their domicile.

Hindu Law is derived from oral traditions passed down from ancient scholars, and recorded in law books called smitris. Essentially, Hindu Law describes proper conduct and behavior linked to The Vedas – a holy collection of religious songs and prayers written in India between 2000 and 1000 BC.

Given its history, India developed a hybrid legal system, where Hindu Law has been codified into parliamentary acts and legislation concerning marriage and successions, coexisting with Common Law.

Given that Hindu Law is practiced regardless of a Hindu’s nationality, this law can pertain to any global linguistic group, with a heavy presence in English, Hindi, and India’s vast linguistic communities.

5. Sino-Soviet Law System, Socialist Law

The Socialist Legal system, as the name suggests, was created on the cusps of Marxist socialist theory and the Soviet Union. Today, it remains the foundational legal system in various former Soviet bloc countries, including Cuba, Ethiopia, Laos, North Korea, Mozambique, and China among others.

The Socialist Law system is based on the thoughts and philosophies of Karl Marx. Essentially, it advocates the eradication of capitalism and the private ownership of property and the means of production.

The first example of the system was instilled by Vladimir Lenin, who replaced the Russian court system with a Socialist Law system following the Russian Revolution of 1917.

Given that private property and private commercial ownership were forbidden under Socialist Law, the system rests on public law and does not touch the realms of corporate, business, and private law, areas that are central to the Common Law and Civil Law systems.

The language communities that fall in the Sino-Soviet Law system are varied and range from vast linguistic communities in South East Asia, Eastern Europe, and North and East Africa.

I hope this 101 has helped bring a sense of the depths of the legal systems present around the world, and also the range of legal document translations that can emerge from the diversity of legal foundations in different linguistic communities.

For those translators working with legal documentation,

What are the most challenging aspects of translating for this sector?

How do you translate terminology from your source that does not exist in your target language’s legal system?

Your comments and opinions are welcome!



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