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Background

The United States has no official language and has Federal Law based off the Constitution and derived from the English System. Most of the Law in the United States is written in English, since most people in the United States speak English. However, there are bound to be people that do not speak English and need to understand how the law applied to them. Thus, the law needs to be translated into different languages now and again for situations such as someone who does not understand English.

However, in the process of translation, small things like punctuation and order of clauses can drastically change how the force of law operates. For example, he part of the Judiciary Act of 1789 that got struck down was influenced by a specific interpretation of an ambiguous semicolon:

The Supreme Court shall have [original] jurisdiction over all cases of a civil nature where a state is a party, ... And shall have exclusively all such jurisdiction of suits or proceedings against ambassadors, or other public ministers, .... And the trial of issues in fact ... shall be by jury. The Supreme Court shall also have appellate jurisdiction from the circuit courts and courts of the several states, in the cases herein after specially provided for; and shall have power to issue ... writs of mandamus, in cases warranted by the principles and usages of law, to any courts appointed, or persons holding office, under the authority of the United States.

— Judiciary Act of 1789, Section 13

Question

Given the real ramifications of potentially erroneous punctuation, and the inevitability that laws will need to be translated, who ensures that the translation of a law does not change its meaning?

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The question largely does not come up in the US, but it does in some officially bilingual jurisdictions such as Canada. If someone ventures to paraphrase law of the US into Farsi or Spanish, that could be a kind act on their part, but it has no official status: only the law as enacted has legal weight. Though India is officially multilingual in many ways, acts of parliament must be in English – the English version is authoritative, even though translations may be made.

In Canada, both English and French versions are official; so in the case of R. v. Collins, [1987] 1 SCR 265, a conflict is detected:

The French version of the text, which translates could bring the administration of justice into disrepute, is less onerous than the more stringent English version, "would bring the administration of justice into disrepute", and consequently is preferable in that it better protects the right to a fair trial

(invoking a separate principle of interpretation, lenity, in case of ambiguity).

There is some indication that EU directives can be translated after the fact, so that the 1979 Wild Birds Directive was translated from English into Slovak some years later. In the case of the EU, the Directorate-General for Translation shoulders that responsibility.

  • 2
    (+1) This is perhaps going beyond the scope of the question but the situation in the EU is more complicated than that. All EU law must be available in all official languages, which means a large part of the acquis was indeed translated after the fact. So Directive 79/409/EEC was indeed translated in 20+ languages (but not in Irish or Croatian as it was no longer in force when those became EU official languages). – Relaxed Aug 21 at 19:34
  • In principle, new directives or regulations are drafted in all languages concurrently, MEP can speak and submit amendments in their own language and votes cannot take place if some versions are missing. So the text will have been translated in several directions, sometimes directly and sometimes through the most common languages (“pivot languages”). The whole set of versions becomes EU law. – Relaxed Aug 21 at 19:42
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    Because of this, the Directorate-General for Translation does not play a big role but the EUCJ does. If there is some doubt, it will rely on each judge's clerks (référendaires) or on the Court's lawyer-linguists to resolve discrepancies. The Court (and the Commission's legal service) works in French, even if oral proceedings can take place in another language and all decisions are of course published in all official EU languages. – Relaxed Aug 21 at 19:47
  • This must impose a significant burden on Estonia and Malta. Is it really up to the 6 Maltese MPs to draft Maltese versions on all legislation? – user6726 Aug 21 at 20:00
  • No, no, sorry for the confusion. They are free to submit amendments in Maltese (or English or Italian or any other official EU language) and the rest of the text will be translated by professional translators. What I was trying to explain is that MEP are not working together on one version that would then serve as a basis for translations, they are working in many languages concurrently, with help from translators. The Court, on the other hand, does work in one language (French) and its decisions are only translated at the end of the process, shortly before they are made public. – Relaxed Aug 21 at 20:07
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While the original question is about U.S. Law, conventions on international treaties (which are often drafted in multiple languages) are informative as to how this question is dealt with in other contexts.

The Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties is a UN convention on international treaties. Article 33 discusses (briefly) how treaties with multiple versions in multiple languages should be interpreted:

  1. When a treaty has been authenticated in two or more languages, the text is equally authoritative in each language, unless the treaty provides or the parties agree that, in case of divergence, a particular text shall prevail.
  2. A version of the treaty in a language other than one of those in which the text was authenticated shall be considered an authentic text only if the treaty so provides or the parties so agree.
  3. The terms of the treaty are presumed to have the same meaning in each authentic text.
  4. Except where a particular text prevails in accordance with paragraph 1, when a comparison of the authentic texts discloses a difference of meaning which the application of articles 31 and 32 does not remove, the meaning which best reconciles the texts, having regard to the object and purpose of the treaty, shall be adopted.

So basically, treaties are "authenticated" in some languages, which are agreed to by the parties at the time of adoption; however, the parties can agree that a particular version has precedence over the others. Versions of the treaty in other languages will not be "authenticated" unless the parties agree. And if there is a discrepancy between authenticated versions, the discrepancy should be resolved "in regards to the object and purpose of the treaty".

As an example, the Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties itself is authenticated in five languages (see article 85):

The original of the present Convention, of which the Chinese, English, French, Russian and Spanish texts are equally authentic, shall be deposited with the Secretary-General of the United Nations.

  • Wasn't there a case of a diplomatic treaty where it turned out each treaty said something different in a way that was significantly detrimental to the less powerful country? – Nzall Aug 22 at 13:08
  • @Nzall: I had a vague recollection of that as well, but I couldn't dig up the details. It might be worth asking that question over on History. – Michael Seifert Aug 22 at 13:19
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Lawyers and courts.

Even in the United States, laws are written in a verbose and precise style of English that can almost be thought of as a separate language. ("Legalese" is only half a joke; the quote in your question wasn't about translating an English law into another language, but interpreting what the law actually meant in English!)

A lawyer, then, is in part an interpreter that translates Legalese into whatever language (English, Spanish, etc) their client requires.

Courts arbitrate disagreements when the translations used by two parties differ.

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