Legal Translation

The Vagaries of a Hebrew Contract

Or Why You Need a Qualified Legal Translator

By Brocha Speyer

“My best friend’s Hebrew is impeccable – I mean, she’s been living here for nearly twenty years – so she can translate my contract for me, right?”

Uh…maybe – it is definitely possible that your friend is both legally and linguistically savvy. But you certainly can’t take that for granted.

Translation of any sort is a complex task, and legal translation poses its own unique set of challenges.

Imagine you are the one doing the translating. What do you do when faced with a word that could mean ten different things (poly-semantic phrases) –especially where several of the definitions differ from each other only subtly? If fate deemed you a muggle, devoid of any mind-reading prowess, how are you realistically expected to guess what the author had in mind?

Take the Hebrew word ishur for example. It is an integral component of any legal document and could mean anything from confirmation, endorsement, approval, okay, sanction, verification, and imprimatur, to acknowledgment, averment, certificate, certification or authorization. So… is the contract’s Party A expected to obtain acknowledgement, approval or confirmation? This group of words does share a common thread – yes, but I do not recommend using the word “sanction” where it should be “certificate.” Translators had better have a thorough understanding of the subject matter at hand if they are to consistently opt for the word at the right time.

Now think of the Hebrew word lezakot. The dictionary offers a nice list of possible translations – to acquit, to grant (right, privilege, favor etc.), to credit, and to provide. So when a legal translator is confronted with the unfamiliar term “dira mezaka” – what sort of apartment should come to mind? An apartment that sits in judgment and rules clemently, perhaps? One that grants favors to anyone fortunate enough to cross its threshold? Or maybe it’s an apartment that sells you things on credit. How is the innocent translator to guess that it’s not a bewitched dwelling the contract is discussing, but merely a tax-exempt one?  You’ve gotta know the lingo.

Of course, there are always going to be those faux amis (deceptive cognates) that will go to any length to throw you off track. When the unsuspecting translator heaves that well-earned sigh of relief – finally, a non-brainer, same in both languages – his translation is actually in a state of unprecedented danger.  To render the Hebrew word director as director – Heaven forbid! I can assure you that the company’s director will not appreciate your confusing him with a mere board member, thank you very much.

And those old spelling woes will come back to plague us here as well. C’mon, breathe easy, you say. If we can’t trust Microsoft for its good old spell-check then whatever can we trust it for? But when you’re a legal translator, you can’t allow yourself the luxury of confusing borne with born. Or insure with ensure, for that matter.

Then there’s the grammar. Did you ever think you would be revisiting Miss Green’s  tenth grade English class twenty years down the line? I assure you: when you tackle that first Hebrew contract you’ll be longing for the day that she conquers the world and forces her outdated laws upon all of its inhabitants. I mean, even that dreary prospect beats spending your days trying to identify the main verb of a sentence that runs on for five pages straight…and why is it that texts sent in for translation always seem to have been written by the most non-linguistically-inclined people on the planet? Not to mention the fact that in Hebrew, it is actually legal to structure a conditional sentence as though it were a past statement…

One last point for now: A Hebrew-English legal translator cannot get by merely with legal proficiency and linguistic know-how. To be the real thing, you’ll have to either take a crash course in ancient Aramaic or else strike up a chummy relationship with your local rabbi. Hebrew legal documents are generously interspersed with Talmudic phrases. Sort of the way English legal documents are peppered with pompous Latin. Omnia dicta fortiora si dicta Latina, anyone?

So basically, in sum, legal translation is serious business. You are finally purchasing that property in Israel – make sure you do it right.

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