Virtual synonyms: breach, violation or non-performance

‘Breach, violation or non-performance’ is just an example of the kind of problem encountered by translators working out of English. I have met native speakers of German who prefer to work into English largely to avoid this problem of contract translation.

What do the doublets or triplets mean? Probably the lawyer who drafted the contract wasn’t sure but used an established phrase.

How can you find out if they are synonyms or not?

Books on using plain language in the law can be helpful, because they sometimes say which doublets are synonyms and which aren’t. For instance, Mellinkoff, Legal Writing: Sense and Nonsense has an appendix B which lists coupled synonyms.

acknowledge and confess
act and deed
annual (sorry, should read ‘annul’)and set aside
authorize and empower
conjecture and surmise
covenant and gree (should read ‘agree’)

and many more.

The problem is mentioned by Enrique Alcaraz and Brian Hughes in Legal Translation Explained:

There is, of course, the possibility that the original phrase contains a mere tautology exhibiting neither subtlety nor rhetorical aptness, i.e. what is sometimes called ‘a distinction without a difference’. If this is the translator’s conclusion, there would seem to be two options open: silent simplification by dropping the less general term, or simple reproduction. Lawyers, after all, are not always breathtakingly compelling speakers or writers, and it is likely that most languages would tolerate literal renderings of rather weak pairings like ‘final and conclusive’, even if conscious stylists would not applaud them. On the other hand, the doublet ‘alter and change’ is a candidate for simplification to the equivalent of ‘alter’ or, alternatively, to some such treatment as ‘alter in any way’.

The problem is also addressed in this paper:

Exploring near-synonymous terms in legal language. A corpus-based, phraseological perspective

Stanislaw Gozdz-Roszkowski.


This paper aims to determine the extent to which a corpus-based, phraseological approach can be effectively applied to discriminate
among near-synonymous, semantically-related terms which often prove troublesome when translating legal texts. Based on a substantial multigenre
corpus of American legal texts, this study examines the collocational patterns of four legal terms ‘breach’, ‘contravention’, ‘infringement’ and ‘violation’, first in the genre of contracts and then in the multi-genre context of the entire corpus. The findings highlight the
area of overlap as well as specificity in the usage of these terms. While collocational constraints can be argued to play an important
disambiguating role in the semantic and functional analysis of both source and target text items carried out by translators prior to the
interlingual translation, this study emphasizes the applicability of the phraseological approach to English source texts.

I’ve long been tempted by the idea that computer study of collocations could help translation problems. But I’m not really sure. At all events, the author see this study as merely the beginning of an approach to analysing legal synonyms and near-synonyms.

The collocational information can be treated as a clue or a prompt to evoke a generic scenario in which a particular legal concept functions. Such is the case of breach, which reflects a unity of domain and genre with a well-defined and homogenous class of objects this term refers to. Similarly, the use of infringement is marked by domain-specificity. This tendency for certain legal terms to co-occur with other terms or phrases marked by semantic resemblance could also be accounted for by referring to the concept of semantic preference (Stubbs, 2001). In contrast, violation cuts across legal domains and genres and it is the most ‘inclusive’ of all the terms. Finally, contravention illustrates a heavy phraseological restriction to virtually one form of (a) phrase.

8 thoughts on “Virtual synonyms: breach, violation or non-performance

  1. I was unaware than annual and set(-)aside were synonyms, unless referring to year-end apportionments, and also of the term gree, outside of a Japanese social networking service. Also acknowledge and confess (criminal) leaves out the obvious term of formal and informal admission at civil law.

    We also need to be wary of any claims of ‘otiose’ couplets as true synonyms, many UK and Irish lawyers and judges labouring under a misconception, for instance, that sole and exclusive e.g. of an agency mean the same thing. They don’t.

  2. Thanks for the equitable rectifications Margaret. I now see, said the blind man. But annul (e.g. a marriage) and set aside (a default judgment) are still no more synonyms than a covenant (contained in a deed and not an act) and agree (can be a preliminary arrangement). I am amazed that authors of English legal drafting and writing manuals, even as practising lawyers and judges, have not bothered to do their homework.

  3. Yes, they are synonyms when they are encountered as a doublet: ‘annul and set aside this contract’, for instance, or do you still see a distinction? How would you translate them into German? I don’t believe that Mellinkoff is (was) as stupid as you imply.

  4. I’ll have a go, whilst we are growing tired. Annul a contract can be ‘einen Vertrag für nichtig erklären’ in good German. Set aside is not used for a contract in good legal English and, if it were, it would be ‘rückgängigmachen’ or ‘aufheben’. In the latter case, there can be an Aufhebungsvertrag, namely a severance agreement for a German contract of employment. In the former case, there can be a Teilnichtigkeit, so a partial nullity that annuls a single provision, thereby triggering any severability clause and letting the rest of the contract stand. There can be no partial set-aside and it would be utterly ridiculous to suggest as much. Over to you or other supporters of the late Mellinkoff whose unEnglish-sounding name gives the game away.

  5. We’ll just have to agree to disagree. This isn’t about transforming the contract into German law, which would be unauthorized practice of law, but precisely avoiding the German law terms in rendering an English doublet, where you have to decide whether the doublet consists of two synonyms (in context, mind) or not. Which is the whole point of this post! I’ll leave you to waffle on about separate issues in the comments as long as you want.

  6. A threat?
    But I still disagree with the suggestion that ‘annul and set aside’ is not a wordy doublet. The problem starts in the English, which should perhaps just have been ‘annul’. Admittedly the ways of ending a contract are a complex matter, so exactly how to render it in German would depend on the context, but I don’t believe two verbs are necessary.
    I admit that ending contracts is a minefield. The distinctions between terms are somewhat complex and I always found that teaching them caused more confusion than clarity. For instance, you say one cannot set aside a contract, but what about setting aside a contract for mistake?
    Perhaps it would have been clearer if I had stuck to ‘covenant and agree’ or ‘conjecture and surmise’.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

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