THE TERM’S THE THING
Industry experts provide an informative perspective on the trickier aspects of financial and legal translation BY JAY FEIST
In December, NCTA members had the opportunity to learn some of the ins-and-outs of financial and legal translation from two veteran translators with decades of experience in these fields. In their presentations, they brought their experience to bear on the problem of terminology.
Robert Killingsworth has a graduate degree in economics, is a CFA, and has been translating financial documents from French into English for the past twenty years. Killingsworth divided his presentation into two parts: general principles for financial translation, and specific examples of terminological challenges. Translators must pay attention to the contexts and sources of financial terminology. The biggest source of tricky terms is accounting. Hence, translators need to be familiar with the various accounting systems and the differences between them. In addition, translators need to know the sources of international terminology. The best authorities for international terminology are the various international institutions and regulatory bodies. Concluding the first part of his presentation, Killingsworth admonished translators not to localize international accounting terms into US terminology and always to confirm translations of terms by checking online.
In the second part, Killingsworth discussed three types of terminological challenges. The first type comprises terms specific to a particular jurisdiction, especially newly created terms. For example, in the wake of the 2008 financial crises, French legislation introduced the term titre financiers—which simply means “securities,” though no dictionary has an entry for it. The second type, terms with “wrinkles,” have subtle differences between the source language (SL) and the target language (TL). For example, consolidation. English accounting systems have only two methods of consolidating accounts, whereas the French have three; thus, what gets consolidated or deconsolidated can be quite different from one system to the other. Killingsworth’s final type is terms that differ between common law and civil law. Problems arise because the two systems are based on different fundamental assumptions and employ different definitions of terms. In such cases, the translator needs to know when to use a functional equivalent, such as “mortgage loans” for prêt hypothecaire or “easement” for servitude, and when to use cognate or direct translations from English-speaking civil law jurisdictions.
Our second speaker, Joe McClinton, has worked as a translator for 35 years and currently teaches German-English and French-English translation at the Monterey Institute of International Studies. “Which legal system are you going to translate for?” asked McClinton. Each source system has its peculiarities, as does each target system, thus the translator has to learn two legal languages to decide what is equivalent between the two systems. Equivalent, he stressed, does not mean identical. Even within the US, definitions of legal terms such as “corporation” or “marriage” differ from state to state. Hence, like any translator, the legal translator will have to live with a certain degree of distortion. Rather than seek perfect correspondence, the legal translator should ask what the text is doing in the SL and strive to make the text function for an English reader as it did for a native one.
McClinton offered three preliminary principles for tackling legal terminology: make sure you understand what the term means; beware of faux amis; and above all, don’t guess! Most terms are amenable to a four-step process. First, consult dictionaries, both monolingual and bilingual. Translators, however, need to learn each dictionary’s limitations—“but it’s in the dictionary” is equivalent to guessing. The third step is to mine the web, but again, translators need to be careful. Finally, cross-check results against English language dictionaries and corpora to ensure your translation means what you think it does. When all else fails, check the SL definition of the term again, and then employ last resorts, such as leaving the term in the SL followed by a brief parenthetical explanation in English. Whenever a term proves intractable, the translator should add a note and contact the client, who may know the answer. If the client doesn’t, then you know you’ve run into something really strange. McClinton advises translators to let the strange stuff just remain strange–and above all, don’t guess!
A final point stressed by both presenters was consistency. Translators need to use terms consistently. McClinton pointed out that changing terms might introduce unintended distinctions. On the other hand, if the difference between terms is not material, then constantly repeating the same word might actually inhibit comprehension. In the end, both presenters emphasized, the translator’s task is to be faithful to both the form and content of the SL, while making the translation as clear as possible. JF