Translating Jurisprudence: How a Bad Translator Killed Law’s Empire

killing laws empire

I have two great intellectual passions: law and philosophy. When you put them together you get what is known as jurisprudence or theory of law. I have taken countless courses and seminars on jurisprudence in several languages and read many authors in their original languages as well as a lot of others translated into either Spanish or English from French or German, yet I have never encountered a worst translation than the one I am going to discuss here today.

In one of my current jurisprudence seminars, we studied, among other great works, Law’s Empire by Ronald Dworkin. Because Dworkin was an American thinker, Law’s Empire was written in my language, so I would never have even looked at a Spanish translation were it not for the fact that the seminar I am attending is in Spanish and three of the other participants (all lawyers) read the same Spanish translation, which apparently was so awful, that they spent at least 40 minutes from a two hour session discussing how the translator had killed Law’s Empire. Curiosity, of course, got the best of me and I just had to check out the translation for myself. Here are my thoughts:

Lack of Background Knowledge

This is not the first time I mention lack of background knowledge on this blog, but this translation is a perfect example of what I mean. The translator was completely clueless about philosophy in general and jurisprudence in particular, and it showed! In jurisprudence, like all other areas of philosophy, authors often build their thoughts on the groundwork laid out by prior thinkers in a sort dialogical form. When referring to very well-known works, ideas or theories, they assume the reader is also familiar with them and, therefore, will not explicitly clarify to whom or what they are referring every single time they make reference to it. So, for example, when referring to the categorical imperative an author will assume you know he’s referring to Kant, and if you don’t, you should not be translating philosophy (seriously!). The same happens with jurisprudence. In this case, the translator’s overall ignorance led entire references to be lost in translation by rendering word-for-word interpretations of very well-known philosophical and jurisprudential concepts to the point to which they became unrecognizable.

Using Non-Interchangeable Terms Interchangeably

Although it’s true that concepts such as “fairness” and “justice” can, in certain contexts, be translated interchangeably into Spanish, which has only one word for both concepts, in the case of jurisprudence, this simply does not hold. Interpretation is an essential part of jurisprudence and great thinkers –especially those heavily influenced by Wittgenstein’s philosophy of language or who pay special attention to logical accuracy– are extremely careful about using accurate and consistent terminology.

Inconsistencies

Building on the idea expressed above, it is not OK to translate terms inconsistently, which is something this translator clearly ignored. With some thinkers, a single change in terminology can affect the entire logical flow of their arguments, thus weakening the argument itself.

Lack of Comprehension

This was directly related to all of the above items. The translator clearly understood the words but not the ideas in Dworkin’s work. I have to admit, Dworkin is not a particularly easy thinker to understand, but many of his ideas were incomprehensible after being re-interpreted and re-signified by an utterly incompetent translator –to the point to which several PhD students and a renowned Professor of Jurisprudence were unable to follow the logic in the translated version not only in entire sentences, but entire paragraphs, and not for lack of capacity on their part.

Closing thoughts

I know that most of what I have identified as the main flaws in a certain Spanish translation of Law’s Empire is applicable to translation in general. These four weaknesses can affect any translation, even extremely simple ones. But I think when accepting the honor of translating the ideas of some of the greatest minds in jurisprudence, one is especially obliged to remain as faithful as possible to the original meaning of the source text, and if a large part of what the author wrote rests on his or her ability to accurately follow logical propositions to their most significant conclusions, then the least a translator can do is humbly evaluate whether he or she has the proper training and experience for the task. Most of the translators in my network would be up to the challenge and would do an excellent job. Yet, ironically, when asked about this, they agreed they would also think it through before accepting a job of these characteristics and many, with different training or areas of specialization, said they would turn it down. And that level of introspection and awareness of their own limitations is what sets them apart as real pros in my book! So to the translator that killed Law’s Empire, please, learn from the pros, and think twice before embarking in such complex tasks.

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