Welcome to The Law and Translation Blog

May 13, 2022

Given that language and law are both human constructs, they will always be necessarily intertwined.  Local, state, and federal legislatures, executives, and courts use language to convey laws, orders, decisions, etc., which are limited to the restrictions imposed by language.  These restrictions, in turn, also limit our ability to translate them into another language.  What makes it even more daunting is when 1) the source and target languages abide by different rules of construction; and 2) the legal systems involved are different.  It is because of these difficulties that I have created this blog.  Each post will focus on issues that arise when translating a legal text between the civil law and common law legal systems.  Considering my particular background is in Mexican and US law, my focus will be on these two systems and between Spanish and English.  However, the principles I will cover can apply to any civil or common law country and language pair.  The key is to understand the legal concepts being described.  

Hello friend and fellow translator.  My name is Matthew Capelle, Esq., and I have created this blog to help you master the key concepts that make up both civil and common law systems in order to produce accurate translations for your clients.  I have been involved in the legal arena for 18 years, 15 of which have included translation.  I got my start in 2004 when I entered law school at the Instituto Tecnológico Autónomo de México.  Although I had been living in Mexico for four years by this time, I quickly discovered that my Spanish wasn't nearly as good as I had thought--there is a huge difference between daily-conversation-level Spanish and read-and-explain-Plato-level Spanish (yes, I really had to do this).  I also learned that Mexico's legal system was based on civil law, which in its most basic terms means that it is "codified," i.e., all laws are written and organized into written codes or statutes.  At that time, I had no idea what this meant or how it differed from the system of law I had grown up in--common law--which can be described as "judge-made" law, i.e., based on prior court decisions (called "precedents" or "case law").  Although both systems have adopted many principles from the other--the U.S. employs several statutes and codes while Mexico has judge-made law, each system is still quite different. 

I wasn't introduced to translation until 2007, which gave me 3 whole years to understand the many different areas of the Mexican civil law system and how these compared to common law, and by then I thought I was prepared to translate a simple complaint into English.  I was dead wrong.  I quickly discovered that I was way in over my head.  The translation of anything from one language to another can be extremely difficult; however, going from one legal system to another--that's taking the difficulty to a whole other level.  Fast forward to 2013.  After earning my law degree (LL.B) and working a total of 8 years (4 as a clerk and 4 as an attorney), I returned to the U.S. to study a Master of Law degree (LL.M) from the University of Minnesota.  After countless hours of classroom and independent study, I gained in-depth knowledge of several areas of the law, including constitutional law, contracts, labor and employment, trial practice, mediation and arbitration, criminal law, among others.  It became obvious to me relatively quickly that there were many significant differences between the two systems of law but that there were commonalities as well--as if both had been influenced, at least in part, by the other.

Throughout my years in legal translation, I have had to review several translations of legal texts.  I quickly realized that these translations were sorely deficient, meaning that the translator had failed to comprehend the object of the source material.  This caused me to wonder why this was the case--surely there are programs designed for (aspiring) legal translators.  I conducted an online search and discovered that there really aren't any.  I found several links to dictionaries and degree programs.  But I didn't find anything that would actually help a translator or aspiring translator learn about the law.  Dictionaries are helpful for knowing how to translate a specific word from the source to the target language, but if the translator doesn't understand the concept behind it, knowing the actual term doesn't help that.  After over 18 years in the legal field and 15 years in legal translation, along with hundreds of hours of study, I have developed the knowledge and tools that helped me excel in legal translation.  And I want to share them with you.  That is what this blog and accompanying vlog and website are about:  to teach you the law and how to navigate between two separate legal systems. 

Considering that people learn differently, i.e., some learn by reading, others by listening, others by viewing, I will be using different media and platforms to tackle different areas, some of which will overlap.  This blog will focus more on the academic side of translation but will also be linked to the topics I discuss on The Lawyer Translator YouTube page.  The YouTube page, in turn, will contain a series of 1–3-minute video clips in which I discuss a specific issue related to the law and translation.  These issues may be a specific legal concept or term, or any other problem worth discussing and that will help you become a legal translator.  Finally, my website will offer mini-courses, flagship courses (which I am currently developing), and eventually semester-long courses, both live and recorded, to help you become a master legal translator--without having to rack up over $100K in student loans like me!

The idea behind these different media is not to just be a passenger but a dynamic two-way collaboration.  My goal is to get every legal translator, regardless of where you live or your language pair, to offer your insight and experience in legal translation for the benefit of not only your fellow translators but for the field as well.  I sincerely hope you enjoy the content, and please, if you have any questions or if you would like to provide any suggestions or advice on how I can help you learn or improve your experience, feel free to contact me.   

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