French and Yiddish in American law

Is it correct to translate ‘Quel jeu doit-on jouer vis-à-vis des autorités de Californie?’ as ‘What game must we play with the California authorities?’

This question came up for consideration by a United States District Judge recently. He certainly felt competent to answer the question with the help of a bilingual dictionary (I think I could work twice as fast if I had the self-confidence about legal translation that some judges have). I can’t really judge this French, though.

bq. 10/02/2005 : John Garamendi, vs. Altus Finance S.A., et al. – Order Denying MAAF’s Motion to Preclude the French Phrase “Quel jeu Doit-on Jouer Vis-a-Vis Des Autorities De Californie?” as Used in Mr. Simonet’s Notes From Being Translated as “What Game Must We Play With the California Authorities?” [Motion 12] Case No. CV 99-2829 AHM (CWx)

Eugene Volokh writes that French will never rise to the importance of Yiddish in court opinions. Here is a paper on that subject by Volokh and Judge Alex Kozinski

bq. The more likely explanation is that Yiddish is quickly supplanting Latin as the spice in American legal argot. As recently as 1970, a federal court not only felt the need to define “bagels”; it misdefined them, calling them “hard rolls shaped like doughnuts.” All right-thinking people know good bagels are rather soft. (Day-old bagels are rather hard, but right-thinking people do not eat day-olds, even when they are only 10 cents each.) We’ve come a long way since then.

(Thanks to Chris Durban. Netlex blog (French)

4 thoughts on “French and Yiddish in American law

  1. The translation is literally all right, but I wouldn’t be confident to translate the sentence without context. In particular, “vis-à-vis” isn’t precisely “with”. Depending on context, the sentence could mean anything from “what’s the best way to deceive them” to simply “what’s the best way to present ourselves in front of the authorities”, i.e. from defrauding someone to tips about how to approach someone. If it had been “avec”, the idea of “playing games with the authorities” would have been much stronger.

  2. The judge decided correctly, but I’d question his logic of looking in a bilingual dictionary. There is a strong presumption in the legal profession that a dictionary is to language as legislation is to law. This is manifestly false.

    Instead, he might have searched for “quel jeu” in the bilingual Canadian Hansard. That comes on CDROM and isn’t free. In theory, it’s all on the ‘Net, but it’s not easily searchable as far as I can tell. Nonetheless, I did find “à quel jeu joue le ministre du Développement des ressources humaines” at and an English translation as “what kind of game is the Minister of Human Resources Development playing” at

    These are the edited Hansards, which means that the speaker has the right to revise his original words and their translation if he does not think they reflect what he means. Ergo, I presume, Mr Gauthier, the Bloquiste member from Roberval, or one of his more fluently bilingual staff members, considers “what game is he playing” a good translation of “à quel jeu joue-t-il”. This is a far better way to get at intent – which was the real issue in this legal motion – than looking in a dictionary of unknown value, completeness or accuracy.

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