Bill translated into plain English / Gesetzesentwurf aus der Amtssprache übersetzt

The British government wants to reform the coroner system and a bill is to be published next Monday ( June 12). From what the Times Online says, it’s going to be accompanied by a translation into plain English.

bq. The Coroner Reform Draft Bill, published on Monday, will make legal history with an easy-to-understand interpretation of every clause running alongside the text. The simultaneous translation was requested by Harriet Harman, Constitutional Affairs Minister, who said that it was time that the public could read the laws passed in their name.
“Many ministers, let alone MPs, find Bills in the current form hard going, so I don’t know how on earth the public is expected to understand them,” she said.

The trouble with this kind of thing is that probably not everything can be said in plain English. But the draughtsmen are said to be ‘thrilled’ with their translation, and in addition to being easier to read, it also explains all the cross-references.

This could be very useful for translators who work out of English.

There was a session on plain English at Düsseldorf, and I was gradually working up to blogging it, but it’s a complex topic. So here are a few notes:

Andrew Hammel (who has been blogging on the same topics as me) presented an interesting paper on translating into plain legal English. The suggestions seemed radical to me, but the example he gave of one long sentence and a plainer version seemed less radical.

bq. When you must translate such “convoluted and repetitious prose,” are you
permitted to make it simpler and more elegant? Split up 8-line sentences? Untangle nests of relative clauses? Strip needless jargon? The issue presents a host of practical and theoretical problems for the translator. In this paper, I will suggest that the audience for the particular translation usually determines the approach to be used.

This is obviously a question of degree – how far might one go? I recently nearly got a job that involved translating a conveyancing agreement for an American who was selling a house here, and for whom the translation needed to be explanatory. Of course, a real explanatory text would have been much longer and taken longer to do, and it would have approached unauthorized practice of law and needed some disclaimers in any case. So when discussing this topic, examples are essential.

Books on plain English for lawyers are also useful when they indicate which archaic terms are terms of art and which are not. The same goes for doublets and triplets. If Mellinkoff says that two words are synonyms, we can probably rely on it and don’t need to find two German equivalents.

‘Plain English’ is a wide field, though. It was necessary for the linguists (the American term usually refers to scholars of linguistics) to exchange doleful mutterings about the Plain English movement (‘we don’t need to avoid passive constructions all the time’ etc. – I agree with them) in order to feel comfortable with the topic.

There was a paper by Khanh-Duc Kuttig on plain language, which went through the basics and then illustrated by an example how plain English documents can be difficult to understand themselves. A slightly altered version of that document is here (INF 1 on the UK visas site).

There was an interesting paper by Janet Giltrow on direct and indirect speech in judgments, showing how complex the two are (judges reporting direct speech attributed to several speakers at once, indirect speech missing the tone of voice, citation of authorities conveying a sense of authenticity versus citation of non-authorities carrying a question mark). This moved away from the topic of plain English, via a consideration of how much goes on in legal texts.

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