If you are translating legal documents into English, the question of English language variants is going to crop up quickly. While it is possible for a US English speaker to translate well into UK English (and vice versa), the devil is in the detail. Here are some of the transatlantic linguistic twists that can trip you up and give you away as a non-native of the target variant.
I love language. I love reading, writing and learning about the origins of words and phrases. It has been a pleasure and a privilege to be able to earn my living from translating German into English in the last few years. In fact, I love language so much that, if I could, I would get down and roll all around in it, like a pig in mud – or a model taking part in an Yves Klein “Blue” performance.
But although foreign languages fascinate me, there’s nothing quite like wallowing in the rich diversity of my own mother tongue, English.
British English native
I’m a native speaker of British English and that’s the English variant I translate into and write in as standard. But every so often, I’ve been called upon to translate a German language document into US English.
US English is something I have a reasonably ambivalent relationship with. As far as legal translation assignments are concerned, I am highly selective about which US English assignments I take on. Some things are fine, but once the subject matter strays too far in certain directions (real estate, politics, criminal law, civil procedure law), I start to say no. US and UK English diverge too far in these fields for me to feel like I can deliver the standard of translation that my customers expect.
Two peoples separated by a common language? Too right!
Through the US English assignments I have taken on, I’ve learned some subtle and interesting differences between the two variants. Which I’m sure AI could tell you all about without my input, but I’m going to write about it anyway. Because – well – I love language!
1. Capitalisation after a colon
The inspiration for this article actually came from a discussion with the American editor of a publication I’ve been writing for in my spare time. Among other comments about the work I had just submitted, she took issue with the fact that I had failed to capitalise the first word after a colon.
Wading fearlessly into the eddying waters of British English grammar, my soliloquy on colons concluded with the impassioned cry: “I’M NOT WRONG, I’M JUST BRITISH” – which phrase I believe can handily explain at least 90% of the British psyche, now I come to think of it.
Indeed, Americans and Brits take a different approach to the capitalisation of words which follow a colon.
The basic function of a colon is to indicate that the sentence which follows it is an elaboration of the sentence which precedes it.
I have three best friends: Anna, Betty and Charlotte.
The world is facing a huge challenge: climate change.
In US English, the first word following the colon is capitalised if it marks the beginning of a complete sentence – and it follows the APA format. The Chicago Manual of Style has slightly different ideas and holds that the first word after a colon should only be capitalised if there are two explanatory sentences after it.
INCORRECT: Maggie wears a brimmed cap at all times: Strong light often gives her a headache.
CORRECT: Maggie wears a brimmed cap at all times: strong light often gives her a headache.
CORRECT: Maggie wears a brimmed cap at all times: Strong light often gives her a headache. She also likes the way it looks.
In British English, the word following the colon is only capitalised if it is a proper noun or an acronym. The first two example sentences above are written in UK English.
What both countries agree on is that the word following a colon is never capitalised if it introduces a list (and is neither an acronym or a proper noun).
INCORRECT: To apply for the job, I needed to submit several documents: A resumé/CV, my degree certificate and a written reference from my former employer.
CORRECT: To apply for the job, I needed to submit several documents: a resumé/CV, my degree certificate and a written reference from my former employer.
2. Judgement vs. judgment
Obviously, if you are in the business of translating legal documents, the judgement vs. judgment face-off is going to rear its head sooner or later. And asking the question of which spelling is correct in the US and the UK is as big an invitation as any to disappear down a grammarian rabbithole.
“Judgment” is by far the most predominant form in the US. In legal documentation, no other spelling is used. “Judgement” isn’t deemed wrong – it makes the occasional appearance in non-legal texts without anyone having a meltdown. However, it is rare and would probably cause most US English natives to knit their brows slightly when they come across it.
In the UK, both forms (judgement and judgment) are acceptable, although “judgment” is now the more common spelling, and the only one used in legal documentation.
If you’re a committed grammar-geek and want to get right into the tangled history and development of the judgement vs. judgment debate, check out these articles/threads:
If want to bypass the grammarian weeds and cut right to the chase, you will be pleased to know that this is one of the rare instances where dealing with legal texts actually makes your life easier. Stick with “judgment” in both US and UK English and you won’t be…judged.
Ho, ho, ho.
3. Licence vs. license
I know that language is full of quirks, but British English really has gone a bit too far off piste with this one.
In British English, the noun is spelled “licence”, while in US English, it is a “license”. However, when we move on to the verb, the British suddenly decide they like that “s” and go with “to license” – just like their Stateside friends.
Which leaves us with the absurdity that the following sentence in UK English – while circular, repetitive and awkward – is entirely correct:
To obtain a software licence, one must license software.
Ridiculous. We Brits should just stop messing around and fully embrace that second “s”.
4. Punctuation inside or outside speech marks?
While Brits have committed to the idiosyncratic with their licence vs. license shenanigans, I think our approach to speech marks and punctuation is more sensible than the US English rules.
Whereas the Americans will generally keep punctuation inside speech marks, the British are more nuanced.
UK English conventions dictate that only punctuation which was part of the original quote should be placed within the speech marks. Punctuation which does not form part of the quote itself is added to the right of the speech marks.
Consider the following sentence from a Guardian article about precisely this question:
She said: “Oh my God!” although the expression “oh my God”, in many cases, can be abbreviated to “OMG”. Discuss, with particular reference to the position of the exclamation mark, the comma and the full stop.
This sentence is written according to the British English punctuation conventions. An American would probably write it like this:
She said: “Oh my God!” although the expression “oh my God,” in many cases, can be abbreviated to “OMG.” Discuss, with particular reference to the position of the exclamation mark, the comma and the full stop.
This is the general rule I adhere to. However, as you can see from the Guardian article, the matter is far from simple.
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