Plain English and legal style

The Irish law blog, maccann.com, has an interesting entry on plain English for lawyers. It links to a report on the Law Society of Ireland’s new Plain English Guide to Legal Terms (link updated Dec 2015). The Guide acknowledges Kieron Wood and his glossary of legal terms simplified.

Maccann’s main point is that legal documents are hard to understand and plain English may give a false sense of understanding. He doesn’t deny that complex contracts can be written in plain English, if enough work is put into them, but he denies that the full meaning of the document can be understand by reading it through.

bq. If you think that legal writing ought to aspire towards honest-John tabloid-ese or towards so-called “literary” elegance, you’re a daydreamer with a fondness for soft targets.
And you know little about the limitations of language and less about the realities of business.

Reading this sends me off on a tangent. Books on plain English and on legal style can be helpful to translators: they often make it clear how far doublets and triplets can be rendered by one term, where legalese is jargon replaceable by something more straightforward, and where there are terms of art.

But translation brings other problems. Clients sometimes actually want the archaic language, not for the reasons Maccann mentions, i.e. for clarity or because it’s less deceptive for the client, but so the translation ‘sounds legal’. Sometimes I know that a German lawyer I am working for is going to think I don’t know my job if the translation is not peppered with law Latin. And of course, if I prepare a less jargon-ridded version, I too might be persuading the reader that he or she understands the text. After all, wondering about whether to use pursuant to or under merely scrapes the surface of meaning.

Clarity is an association with a journal to promote plain English. The somewhat outdated website does contain articles on the topic. There is also a links page and some articles.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.