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Understanding Legal Interpretation And It's Relationship With Legal Translation

Like instruments are to the medical practitioners, designs are to engineers, language is to the lawyers. Language is an inherently important cornerstone in the day-to-day functioning of the Legal profession. However, Legal Language due to several reasons is complex and it is up to the legal community to help the laws understandable to the general public.

One of the major duties of the judicial body of any country is the "interpretation" of the laws and statutes, based on which judicial decision is reached and justice is delivered. Legal Interpretation broadly means to uncover the true meaning of the statute and apply it correctly in each context. On the other hand, another concept that goes synonymous with interpretation is "Legal Translation."

To understand these 2 concepts consciously, I have chosen the following research articles:
"On the conceptualization of meaning in Legal Interpretation" by Martina Bajcic.[1]

"Legal Translation v. Legal Interpretation. A Legal-Theoretical Perspective" by Mateusz Zeifert and Zygmunt Tobor.[2]

"The Role of Culture in Legal Languages, Legal Interpretation and Legal Translation" by Anna Piszcz and Halina Sierocka.[3]

This brief introduction is followed by the explanation and summarisation of the above-mentioned articles which expand our understanding of the concepts of Legal Interpretation and Legal Translation and the difference between the two. The author of this project advances his stance on the articles later in the project.

Summary Of Research Papers

On The Conceptualization of Meaning In Legal Interpretation

The author in this article explores and advocates an approach and purposive method of legal interpretation that goes beyond the particular "definition" of a legal term and where the extralinguistic factors such as legal purpose and social context are also weighed in. In this article, the principles of terminology studies are applied in the context of legal interpretation.

The article is divided into sections where the author delves into the common ground between the "terminology studies" and the legal theories, examines the concept of terminology studies and then through a relevant case law, elucidates on how a judicial decision is reached at where there is ambiguity and vagueness in the legal literature.

The conceptualization process is influenced by our "cognitive perception of meaning," which can be explained through the example of a decision by US Supreme court to decide "whether tomato is a fruit or a vegetable." The judgement relied upon the fact of how we eat tomato (as a vegetable while making dishes etc. and not as side dish like we eat fruits). This highlights the importance of conceptual meaning of the term "tomato" and how our knowledge of the world influences our "conceptualization" process.[4]

"Terminology" as a term has different meanings and very broad. Terminology studies refers to a study concerned with "labelling and designation of concepts through research." Rather than having fixed and rigid definitions, legal terms represent "open ended categories" to support scope for interpretation and extralinguistic contexts.

To better understand the application of terminology in legal interpretation, the author analyses a case "Toy Biz Inc. v US"[5] where there were taxation disparities in the case of dolls representing humans and non-human creatures. The court had to contend with term "represent" in the definition of the toys- "dolls representing human beings."

The court questioned that whether "represent" meant "to resemble" or something. This question led to legal uncertainty and ambiguity in the sense that more definitions were possible for "dolls" and they will lead to difficulty in solving this case.

The top court concluded that most of the figures at hand had non-human features and therefore these dolls "resemble" human beings and not "represent" them. The toys are known to the general public as "superheroes." The court in this case recognized the "popular culture" (an extralinguistic factor) and underlined the importance of wider conceptual structure for the term. According to the author, this conceptualization is present at the very foundations of the "cognitive terminological approach."[6]

Martina gives us a brief but a very considerate understanding of the whole concept of the "meaning" of terms as used in the field of Legal Interpretation. Through a careful understanding of a particular case law the author of the research article gives great insight into how the courts interpret and use contextual information to better understand a particular disputed term and uncover its meaning relevant for the judgement.

Martina also highlights the importance to lead a "context supported approach" to advance research into the legal interpretation. Studying legal literature or terms in the legal context in isolation is neither an efficient nor a successful approach. On the other hand, a highly advantageous approach would be to take "extralinguistic" context into consideration and lay more emphasis on concept rather than the strict wording and definitions, whenever dealing with vague legal terms or concepts.

The author of this article also underlines a mysterious yet straightforward way through which the courts interpret concepts, which are hidden to the layperson but it is pertinent for them to understand through well written articles like these.

Legal Interpretation v. Legal Translation. A Legal Theoretical Perspective

Most people usually think that Legal Translation and Legal Interpretation are closely related, and it is not implausible to do so. But we also have to be careful about the distinction between the two. It is the belief of several scholars among the legal community that both these concepts are inherently distinct while some consider Legal Translation to be described much better as a "special case of interpretation."

Legal translation basically means to convert "legal literature" from the original language in which the legal text is written to a particular "target language." Unlike translation however, "Interpretation" has several definitions. Interpretation is one of reflective activities we engage in when "conventional meanings" are called into question. There are several types of interpretation discussed in the article like wide, and narrow. Wide refers to the ascribing meaning to linguistic communication. It is generally observed that legal rules are applied to straightforward cases without elaborating on their meaning.

The Legal interpretation of rules and statues is required when doubts arise so as to their application. Interpretation is essential for understanding of a concept and so it is necessarily a prerequisite for translation in the wide sense. Translators of legal literature must have knowledge of law to fully comprehend the concept behind legalese, since legal language remains complex for a layperson. It is also stressed in the article that translators must know the thinking process of how lawyers and judges read and write.[7]

If we adopt a narrow approach to interpretation, distinction between "understanding" and "interpretation" arises. It is addressed in the article that the job of a translator is to consciously understand the text but not interpret it in legal sense. A distinguished scholar Chroma, argues that legal interpretation comes into play only when the legal context is disputed, and in some cases, translators do not need to dabble with the legal context to find its meaning.[8] This claim however, is false. Legal Context is perhaps the most important thing to consider while understanding legal literature.

To put it simply, legal interpretation comes into spotlight only where there's disputable meaning to a particular legal term or concept. And as Fallon puts it, "Legal Interpretation is not primarily concerned for communication but rather extensively habituated for problem solving." And these problems have been identified by the authors and extensively discussed in the article.

The problems could be where there 2 possible directions of the same sentence or word, or if there are varying opinions regarding a reference point. These problems and doubts generally arise because of unsurety in whether a particular legal rule applies to a factual situation.

Legal Interpretation is inherently "persuasive in nature," and is rarely used for pure cognitive advancement purposes. It is mainly used for practical construction of arguments and judgements regarding "meaning" of particular terms.

It is true that there may be some deliberate indeterminacy in the text but it is not be viewed as a defect but rather as an "inherent feature" for honest translation. Translators may tend to correct this delicately placed ambiguity or vagueness, which in turn might disturb the balance of a legal instrument. This tendency might also affect the "normative content" of the legal text.[9] A translator's job is to maintain originality.

A major difference between legal interpretation and translation is also that they differ in epistemic viewpoints. Due to practical complexity of language, an internal perspective is called for, which a translator generally lacks. This internal outlook basically means knowledge of how legal discourse goes about, which is essential for interpretation.

Lastly, the authors discuss about the difference in the goals of the two. There could be different goals of legal translation as identified by different scholars. It could be producing text in target language with identical meaning, create parallel productions with uniform application in courts or have same interpretation by audience of source language as well as target language. However, Legal Interpretation is defined as the "uncovering of an acceptable meaning of a legal rule or statue" in a given context. It can also be associated as finding a solution to an interpretative problem.

The authors also discuss certain similarities between the two such that both of these processes rely on the establishment of "what the author meant" or "what was their intention." In Legal Translation, there may be more than one correct translation and the accuracy of it is determined by how the average reader understands the particular text. This is not the same for Legal Interpretation where there is only one right solution i.e., "determining obligations." This generally leaves no room for alternate solutions.

The authors have done extensive discussions in the article which reflect on the concepts of legal interpretation and legal translation. This article also offers great insights into how both these concepts share a relationship both in wide and narrow sense. Where one necessitates the other in a wide perspective, the importance of distinction between the two is immense if we look at them through narrow sense.

Because while translating a particular legal text a person may have pre-formed conclusions and in the case of Interpretation, it is their responsibility to understand it after extensive consideration of facts and context.

We also looked at how Legal Interpretation usually works in the legal discourse involving processes like identification of problems and reasonable solution to that particular issue. This article is not completely exhaustive of all the aspects related to these 2 concepts, but briefly touches upon some of them and the authors encourages fellow scholars to deeply analyse and research on these two concepts.

The Role of Culture in Legal Language, Legal Interpretation, and Legal Translation

The author through this article tries to explore certain cultural aspects that are relevant for Legal Language, Translation, and Interpretation. Language can be looked through several perspectives such as social, historical, cultural, etc. The shadow of culture as argued by the authors, is instrumental in shaping attitudes and opinions about the legal system. The development of national language may give rise to new legal terminology.

The author highlights the concept of "political correctness" and its effect on legal language. Euphemism and the sensitisation of society to derogatory terms has given rise to new more inclusive linguistic terms in the legal language. The change in attitude of people was also followed by a change in language.[10]

The judicial decisions in common law tradition find mention of literary puns, humour, individual comments, etc., are all testament to the culture of common law countries. The authors use the example of polish constitution to show the difference in culture, as the legal drafting is subject to constraints and judicial decisions there do not exercise the similar freedom as in several other countries.

Just as the society and its culture keeps on evolving, the need for law to evolve is extremely relevant. The evolution of law occurs through legal interpretation. To increase the awareness of people in society regarding legal knowledge, it is imperative that the legal clarification system be endorsed as done in "Polish Business law" which seeks to make the law more understandable, clear, and accessible. The authors also discuss the "derivational theory" to explain whether any "legal interpretation theories" can be applied to any legal culture. Through the example of polish legal system, the authors argue that the Polish principles, judicial practice, method of law making, etc., cannot be applied to any other legal system or culture.[11]

In my opinion, translators of legal text require some "know-how" which might have social, cultural or terminological techniques to "compensate" for their "lack of legal knowledge." To consciously understand people's intention, translators sometimes need to look beyond language and find answers in cultural and social beliefs/values ("extra-linguistic factors.") The quality and legibility of translation ultimately depends on the translator's effort to take note of historical and social contexts of a particular term. There is another major problem for if the social issue or a cultural concept that is present in the source language, does not find its counterpart in the target language.

Due to rapid advancement and development in the legal translation field, new terminology and new conceptual denotations will keep on being invented and this in turn, leads to advancement of legal terms and concepts, which ultimately expands the legal culture and systems. The authors, Anna and Halina have briefly touched upon how culture has an effect in influencing legal interpretation, language, and translation.

It is very pertinent as law students to study some important aspects with relation to the concepts we are analysing and culture is just one of them. This was a brief but a well-written article where the things were discussed but not really explored in depth. There were a lot of abstract ideas in the article given by the authors which though thought-provoking are not very well understood due to a dearth in the variety of examples given.

The main of aim my project has been to summarise the research articles with advance my opinion briefly on the same. The research articles I have chosen in this project discuss in detail the concept of Legal Interpretation. And they also analyse another concept that goes synonymous with it, i.e., Legal Translation. Legal Translation and Legal Interpretation in my opinion, should be distinctly examined and analysed with relation to specific context and not to be confused with one another as most people do.

Legal Interpretation is an inherently important concept to consider if we have to understand how judiciary functions in our society. We have also discussed certain factors that play an instrumental role in influencing the two, more specifically "Culture" in the last paper.

Our society does not remain constant and it constantly keeps evolving. Therefore, it is necessary for the legal rules and laws that govern people in the society also maintain relevancy. This evolution of legal statutes and rules generally happens through judicial legal interpretation.

So, the concept of legal interpretation becomes extremely relevant for us as law students and also as responsible citizens to understand how our society works and how the courts sometimes deliver judgement. We discussed in the first article how sometimes to overcome ambiguity and vagueness; the courts go beyond the strict wording of a statute and interpret it after taking into several extralinguistic aspects such as social and cultural factors.

Through the example of superhero toys, we looked at how "Pop-culture" can also influence judicial decisions. As discussed earlier in this project, the context while understanding Legal text and interpretation is imperative. We also examined an equally relevant concept, Legal Translation to get a better understanding of how it shares a really unique relationship with legal interpretation and also analysed several differences between the two.

  1. Martina Bajcic, On the Conceptualization of meaning in Legal Interpretation, 10 Language and Legal Interpretation in International Law 152, 152-164 (2022
  2. Mateusz Zeifert and Zygmunt Tobor, Legal Translation Versus Legal Interpretation. A Legal-Theoretical Perspective, 35 Int J Semiot Law 1671, 1671-1687 (2022).
  3. Anna Piszcz and Halina Sierocka, The Role of Culture in Legal Languages, Legal Interpretation and Legal Translation, 33 Int J Semiot Law 533, 533-542 (2020).
  4. Supra no.1.
  5. Toy Biz Inc. v. US, 248 F. Supp. 2d 1234 (Ct. Int'l Trade 2003).
  6. Supra no. 1.
  7. Supra no.2.
  8. Ibid.
  9. Ibid.
  10. Supra no. 3.
  11. Ibid.

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