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First and foremost, translation is communication. It is not simply a matter of converting a text from one language to another. The translator must “immerse themselves in the text”, so to speak. What exactly does the writer want to convey? What does he/she want to achieve? Also a very important point: who is the text for? Often you read a text written in the third person. But is that always convenient? If the text is intended for the reader themselves (e.g., general terms and conditions), wouldn’t it be better to use the second person singular in the translation (“you”)? That way, the text would come alive and the reader would become more involved in the text.

The importance of clear communication also applies to translating legal documents. Of course, a major requirement in this regard is that the translation be legally correct. The Netherlands has a different legal system than English-speaking countries as it applies codified statutes (“civil law”). In civil law and especially Dutch case law, one encounters concepts that do not exist in English-speaking countries. Of course, these terms must be formulated well in the translation, without causing any confusion with English terms.

Naturally, EU law prevails in the Netherlands, and many of our laws are derived from EU legislation, such as the Dutch General Data Protection Regulation Implementation Act (Uitvoeringswet AVG). Given that this legislation already exists in English (in the GDPR), the terms used in the English version must be used. The translator must therefore be well-versed in EU law and the case law of the Court of Justice of the European Union in particular.

A general point not often emphasised is the importance of listening during the translation process. Even non-native English speakers in the Netherlands usually have an excellent sense of how English sounds. We all know that English is the preeminent world language. Therefore, a translator should always keep in mind that a (large) portion of their readers speak English as a second or even third language. This puts all the more emphasis on the need to formulate the message clearly and to refrain from overly complicated wording. This brings us back to the first point, the importance of communication. The Plain English Campaign was launched in the late 1970s. This began when Chrissie Maher, a social worker, tore to shreds a large number of obscure government forms outside the Houses of Parliament. She launched the campaign after two retirees froze to death because they did not understand an application form for heating cost subsidies. Since then, “plain English” has been an integral part of the English language. America also has a similar tradition, dating back to the struggle for independence. Martin Cutts, author of the Oxford Guide to Plain English, describes the purpose of using plain English as follows: “The writing and setting out of essential information in a way that gives a co-operative, motivated person a good chance of understanding the document at first reading, and in the same sense that the writer meant it to be understood.” This thought should never be forgotten in the translation process.


Want to know more about legal translation into English? Or would you like to know how we can be of service to you? Feel free to contact Legal and Financial Translation Agency Fiducia.

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