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The challenges with legal translation, alphabets, and the Far East

The challenges with legal translation, alphabets, and the Far East [Photo: Ivanko_Brnjakovic via iStock]
in Legal

Cross-border contracts, transactions, and deals are more commonplace than ever in today's business world. Companies are increasingly working with other firms in countries across the world to maximise the performance of their own, or even taking their own brands international and having different departments operating in a range of nations. 

However, when this is true for companies, there are a number of challenges that can rear their heads, particularly when it comes to things like legal agreements and contracts. Cross-border operations will mean having to translate legal documents such as contracts, financial information and a range of others, but this can be problematic, particularly when it comes to countries where not only is the language itself different but so is the alphabet. 

The English alphabet is one of the most widely used in the world, with data from World Standards estimating that 2.6 billion people worldwide, or 36 per cent of the world's population, use languages which incorporate what we know as the standard Latin alphabet. This is two times as many as the next most common alphabet (Chinese), and with such a high proportion of people using this, it's easy to forget that not all countries use similar letters and numbers. 

However, when translating legal documents from languages that make use of symbol-based alphabets – such as Chinese or Japanese kanji – there are challenges that emerge for translators to overcome. Here, we take a look at a few. 

Multiple meanings

One big problem that can come with the translation of business documentation from languages such as Japanese is that to a non-native speaker, it can be difficult to decipher multiple meanings from the symbol based kanji, which can be written in one way, but read in a number of varying ways. 

One humorous example of this quoted by Japan Today is the word "hashire". In common culture this means "run", and it's how the average translation would be read. However, if this was included in a financial document, the meaning can be completely different, and the translator could be inadvertently telling investors that it's time to bail out as the company is in severe financial peril. 

This hurdle is one that can be overcome, but it's important that the right translator is in place when dealing with legal translation. Not only does someone need to be fluent in Japanese, but they also need to have some sort of understanding of how the legal sector works in the country so that they don't choose the wrong reading of the kanji used and end up completely changing the intent of the original text. 

Formation of language

Another problem that can come with translation to and from Japanese, as well as other Far-Eastern languages, is the fact that sentences are structured in a completely different manner. This is a particular concern when dealing with legal documentation and contracts. 

As we know, legal language is all about precision and interpretation, which means that everything must be worded impeccably. However, when it comes to a language like Japanese, it can be hard to translate exactly, thanks to the completely different manner in which sentences are formed. Ginstrom says that the average Japanese sentence will comprise of a topic, then a sentence modifier, then the bulk of the sentence itself.

When translating such sentences into English, there's often the temptation to remove language that reads awkwardly. This means removing classifying words and the perceived overuse of nouns. 

However, the challenge comes with making sure that if this is done, the legal meaning of the document is not lost. Remember, contracts and legal forms may well be translated more than once, and if you lose the meaning of the original during the first translation, it can create a domino effect of errors down the line that compromises the meaning and legality of documents. 

When it comes to the translation of non-Latin languages, there are some significant challenges to overcome. Translators face problems with multiple meanings from singular symbols, and unnatural sentence structure that can leave legal documents completely useless if not tackled in the correct manner. For this reason, it's vital that those tasked with translating Far-Eastern, or any other non-Latin alphabet language, legal documents are not only fluent but also au fait with the legal ins and outs of the country in which they are operating. 

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