Functional equivalence in legal translation

Legal translation is a demanding and skilled job. As cross-disciplinary practitioners, legal translators don’t just need flawless knowledge of the languages they work with: they also have to have a thorough understanding of the legal systems relevant to the languages (or language variants) they work with.

When translating legal texts, translators may draw on a number of principles and doctrines to help them with their individual translation decisions. Using these theoretical frameworks, they can assess the various options for translating a term from different perspectives before deciding on a solution. One such theory is that of “functional equivalence”.

In essence, the theory of functional equivalence as applied to legal translation involves assessing and comparing legal terms from the legal systems relevant to a given translation according to functional criteria in order to find a suitable translation.

A legal term is examined as to whether (and to what extent) its purpose, scope of application and legal consequences in the legal system of the target language correspond to those in the system of the source language. The degree of functional congruence determines whether the target language term is a suitable translation.

Core principle

Functional equivalence is the core strategy underlying the translation into English of legal terms in the World Law Dictionary, a project of the Swedish firm TransLegal AB. As the author and editor of the Austrian chapter, Spezialis Translations has translated hundreds of Austrian legal terms into English with the aid of this principle.

Depending on the result of the functional equivalency analysis as described above, foreign language terms in the World Law Dictionary are assigned an English translation in one of the following three categories:

1. Full-/near-equivalence

The terms in the target and source languages have the same (or very nearly the same) purpose, scope of application and legal consequences. The term in the target language can therefore be considered a full equivalent and safely used as a translation.

2. Partial equivalence

The two terms have the same purpose and either the same scope of application or the same legal consequences. This means that the respective target language term can still be used as a translation. However, adding a brief explanatory note next to the translation may be expedient if suitable in the context.

3. No equivalence

It is entirely possible that there is no equivalent legal concept in the target language if your translation. Unsurprisingly, this is most likely to crop up in translations involving a common law jurisdiction on the one hand and a civil law jurisdiction on the other.

In such cases, a new phrase or term has to be found which describes the concept in the source language as well and as succinctly as possible. In other words: a neologism. Because your translation is basically a new word creation which the legal system of the target language doesn’t recognise, it could again be a good idea to insert a brief explanatory note (context permitting).

Functional equivalence in practice

Here are a couple of examples of functional equivalence when applied in practice to legal translation (German/Austrian German > British English):

1. Angebotsannahme – acceptance / acceptance of an offer

The exact requirements for the acceptance of an offer to conclude a contract vary slightly under German and Austrian laws. From the point of view of functional equivalence, however, the concept of “Angebotsannahme” in both Germany and Austria is similar enough to its counterpart in English law for the English translation of “acceptance”/”acceptance of an offer” to be considered a full equivalent.

2. Mutterschutz – maternity leave

These two concepts have the same purpose. However, the British system for the protection and care of pregnant women/new mothers is so different in its range, structure and approach from those in Germany and Austria that “maternity leave” may only be considered as a partial equivalent of “Mutterschutz”.

3. Bundesrat – Federal Council

This is one of the two chambers of the Austrian parliament (the other one is called the Nationalrat). There is no equivalent body in the UK constitutional system: a neologism must therefore be used to translate the term adequately into English.

More blog articles from Spezialis Translations:

My legal translation nemeses: the German words I love to hate

All clangers great and small: a little anthology of iffy translations

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