A Case for English (Legal) Linguistic Consultancy in International Business

English, or Euro-English?

For a while now I have been working as a linguistics professional, specializing in legal linguistics in Dutch and English. It’s quite the niche: it requires knowledge of both languages, as well as of the underlying cultures and legal systems. Since the Anglo-American legal system is in certain respects vastly different from the Dutch legal system (common law v Roman law), translation is rarely a matter of simply opening up the dictionary and choosing the most appropriate term. Improvisation, creativity and research are required to deliver high-quality work.

While the above is true, the need for (legal) linguistics professionals in Dutch corporate situations actually already begins at a far more basic level.

The Netherlands is a relatively small country. Its native tongue is Dutch, spoken only by the Dutch and a few disparate Dutch (ex-)colonies, and no more. True, the Belgians speak Flemish, which is close to Dutch but different enough that it can certainly not be considered the same language; Afrikaans is related to Dutch and so we can understand certain words and phrases, as those who speak Afrikaans can understand certain Dutch words and phrases.

Being residents of such a small country with such a unique language spoken and understood by few, the Dutch have always prided themselves on their language skills. In school, Dutch children take mandatory English classes and have to learn at least one other foreign (European) language besides.

But there is a difference between speaking a language and speaking it well (not to mention writing it well). A few years ago, the humourous book “I always get my sin” was a popular Christmas gift in the Netherlands. It highlighted the degree to which the Dutch believe that they have mastered the English language well enough to communicate with British and American native speakers comfortably and professionally (I’ve been informed by a professional dealing with international business situations on a daily basis that the British refer to this type of English as Euro-English: it’s understandable, but real comprehension is a whole different issue). Interestingly, the book itself was an example of the extent to which the Dutch are still not nearly as fluent in English as they like to think: Dutch readers cracked up at all the literal, incorrect translations of Dutch sayings, but editors apparently hadn’t caught the translations that weren’t incorrect at all and should therefore have been omitted. For instance: “it speaks volumes” is a valid English idiom and a correct translation of the similar Dutch idiom  “het spreekt boekdelen” and as such not a humorous mistranslation, something an editor should have caught.

Of course, the English and American counterparts of Dutch businessmen and politicians understand that English is not the Dutchman’s native language and that fluency should not be expected, but an unjustified sense of linguistic prowess can quickly become an issue when doing business in an international environment. One faux pas may be amusing, two or three might even bring some levity to negotiations and debates, but a continued handicap in linguistic understanding can sabotage dealings between even the most willing of partners. Even more so if the English or American counterpart in these lacks a sense of humour…

As Dutch companies venture more and more out into the world of international business, it is essential that they be perhaps not proficient, but at least sufficiently skilled in international business (and legal) English, in addition to having a basic understanding of the difference in cultures. England may be “right next door”, but geographical proximity does not guarantee an instant and adequate understanding of the cultural subtext in English communication. Similarly, American culture does not become second nature to a Dutch person simply by their watching American movies and television shows (although that often does significantly improve comprehension, and it has the added benefit of exposing the viewer to colloquialisms, slang and mannerisms).

In the context of the above, I’d like to explore the different aspects of linguistic consultancy.

English Linguistic Consultancy & Translation

Many companies in the Netherlands still prefer to compose their documents in Dutch. When the need arises for communication, those companies will make use of translation services for their Dutch texts in order to present their products and services in English. For advertising texts and explanatory documents translation can be a fairly straightforward matter, but such translations take on a different dimension when it concerns legal documents.

Naturally, an accurate legal translation is essential for good business: a clear agreement on the exact nature and specifics of a business deal and a correct understanding of contracts is key. The difference between legal systems, as already touched upon earlier in this post, adds a level of difficulty here.

But the most interesting element is that of the legal consequences to legal translations. Yes, most companies cover the risks by adding the legal jurisdiction and original text clause, but does that always indemnify against dire consequences? The ramifications of translation mishaps can be very costly indeed! While not exactly a translation issue, what is widely known as “the million dollar comma case” illustrates the possible ramifications of correct language and grammar where two different language versions of the same contract have been drawn up. At the heart of this tale lay a contract drawn up in both English and French. The English version contained one comma too many, which resulted in a very expensive premature termination by one party. The other party appealed, referring to the French language version of the same contract and stating that it contained the correct statement of the intended agreement. In the end, the court agreed to rely on the French version of the contract and so this story ended well, but law professors still use this case as a cautionary tale to impress on future lawyers and translators the importance of correct English usage and grammar.

And in case there was any doubt: correct grammar and punctuation are indeed part and parcel of any translation.

English Linguistic Consultancy & Communication

A good working knowledge of international English – disregarding for a moment the more specific areas of legal and business English – is not only helpful, but actually quite important. As the saying goes: you never get a second chance to make a first impression. That first impression can be the deciding factor in whether or not a potential English or American business partner chooses to proceed to do business with a company.

In business the primary objective of communication is for it to be clear and efficient. It is very cumbersome to have to take out 2 hours for a meeting due to communication issues, when half an hour would have sufficed if all persons present spoke good English. And in business, time is money. Therefore, the communication factor will most definitely be taken into account when deciding the pros and cons of entering into a business relationship.

The language element really comes to the fore when deadlines have to be met; if the language barrier slows you down enough, you will simply not be able to perform as agreed upon, simply because getting to a correct understanding will take too much time, reviewing the result on the receiving end will be very work-intensive, and feedback will require too long to process properly.

But even before companies reach the above stage of being in the thick of actually doing business, there’s presentation. Non-native speakers of English tend to assume that presenting oneself in English comes naturally, which is certainly not the case. Advertising texts in brochures, slogans on billboards: these are primary tools used by companies to market themselves, and incorrect English usage or bad spelling will send a message of substandard quality and lack of attention to detail. Even large companies fall prey to such mistakes; take for example Volkswagen’s advertising campaign which featured the slogan “VW. For careless driving”. (italics by me; unfortunately, I haven’t been able to find a link to the campaign, but posters with this slogan are still up at selected Volkswagen dealerships) This does nothing to recommend the product, unless VW’s target group consists of drivers heading out onto the road without a care for the safety of their fellow road users. (An editorial glance over the slogan would have been enough to ensure that the word “carefree” would have been used instead.)

But wait: there’s more! Target language distinction matters. Spelling differs between English and American – “centre” v “center”, “valour” v “valor”, “grey” v “gray” – as do colloquialisms, or slang. It’s important not only to know this, but to be consistent in your use of either British or American English.

In formal documentation, the use of colloquialisms is not quite so prominent, but when discussing matters face-to-face, it plays a huge part. One of the standard anecdotes illustrating incorrect word choice is the man making a quick drawing of a schematic on the back of an envelope for his American business partner. They’re in a bar in New York, and he makes a mistake in his drawing. He calls over the waiter and asks for a rubber. Not so strange to British ears where a rubber is a synonym for an eraser, but to everyone else involved in this situation he just asked for a condom. Awkward…

English Linguistic Consultancy & Business

How can linguistic consultancy be useful to Dutch companies operating on the international playing field? The answer lies mostly in training and support.

A linguistics consultant can provide a company with general language training, and specific business and legal English training on a regular basis. If the company specifies the region with which it aims to conduct business, a consultant can also train staff in relevant culture and custom.  In addition, these training sessions can target the relevant area of business and/or law.

The importance of cultural understanding is illustrated rather nicely in the movie Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps. During a business meeting with Chinese investors, Jake Moore demonstrates an understanding of what Chinese business custom prescribes in order to express appreciation and respect for one’s negotiating partner, as well as a desire to move forward with the negotiations. His gesture earns him respect, as well as their interest in further exploring the options with which he has presented them. Yes, it is just a movie, but it is most definitely true that there is an added value to cultural sensitivity.

Linguistic consultancy can be applied in a more specialized context as well. Companies, such as trust firms and consultancy firms, often work in teams, with each team responsible for dealing with a specific client or business partner. A linguistic consultant – having signed a confidentiality agreement, naturally – can delve into the specifics of a project, preparing the team for any linguistic eventuality while working on the project. In other words: training sessions would then be aimed at a specific client as well as the specifics involved in the project in question, in order to create knowledge and awareness of business and/or legal terminology that will come up. That way, the team is always well-prepared, even for impromptu phone calls or spur of the moment meetings. This will show the company off as engaged, prepared and professional.

Of course, here too, the culture of the relevant geographical region would be included in the training sessions.

Linguistics consultants also prove their value when providing support, such as additional training in preparation for important scheduled meetings, presentations, pitches, and so on, as well as being able to edit documents on short notice.

All in all, in the field of international, a linguistics consultant can really make an enormous contribution to the professionalism of a company, something that is well worth the investment.

Four eyes (are better than two)

For many experienced translators, what I’m about to say will be nothing new, but I feel it is important enough to devote a blog post to.

In order to deliver a high quality translation, a second reader is a must. Even the most accurate translator will make spelling mistakes, miss a grammatical point or two, even forget to translate the odd word or snippet. It happens to the best of us.

Since a translator is so immersed in their translation – as well they should be – they will likely miss the odd mistake or oversight even on a second or third reading, no matter how much distance they will attempt to take from their own work. Our brain is wired to fill in blanks, to view as complete that which is not complete, to see as correct that which is not correct – this is called multistable perception (at least in visual phenomena) – especially when it involves small, almost negligible points. The likelihood of the translator’s brain falling into that trap increases the deeper they get into their translation. That is why a fresh pair of eyes on a translated text is often the best method of spotting translation errors of any kind. In addition, taking the brain’s quirks into account, it stands to reason that the more comprehensive a project is, the greater the necessity for a second reader.

My experience has taught me that there are a number of things to take into account when using a second reader.

Completeness. When you do decide to use a second reader, it is usually a good idea to present them with the original of the translated document. They may spot certain oversights that you have missed, such as a skipped word or phrase, or a misinterpreted sentence.

Quality. When you ask someone to be your second reader, it is good to be sure that you ask someone whom you know can be trusted to be critical, but kind. That last point may seem superfluous or even wimpy, but I have seen even the most experienced translator be shaken (though perhaps only momentarily) by overly harsh criticism of their work. As it is, a second reader is not there to critique your translation, but rather to help ensure the highest possible quality of the finished work. They are there to work with you – the translator – in the client’s best interest.

Language. If at all possible, use someone who is a little more language oriented and precise than your average person. They are more likely to spot little mistakes which someone who is not so much of a language purist might miss. (In fact, for some people I know linguistic and grammatical precision is almost a game of ‘spot the mistake’ – that can be annoying, but also oh-so-useful.) Particularly in legal translations, the kinds of tiny mistakes I’m talking about can create huge and expensive issues (see, for instance, what is commonly known as The Million Dollar Comma Case. This case didn’t involve a translation, but the person drafting the contract would certainly have benefitted from a nit-picking, grammatically precise second reader.).

Jargon and technical know-how. Especially for translations involving technical terminology, it is extremely useful to have for a second reader someone who is familiar with the specific field the translation deals with. For instance: an essay on the ins and outs of aviation law would benefit from someone familiar with this field, due to certain domain-specific jargon specific. A similar example: when translating a text about a specific treaty, you will likely use certain terms and phrases in your translation because they are also used in the official text of the treaty concerned. A person versed in the field or at the very least aware of the treaty and where to find it is much more likely to take this into account (which will in turn cost them less time in weeding out what they would otherwise perceive as your mistakes).

Corrections. Agree with your second reader how they will provide you with their feedback. It will be tempting for some second readers to make changes directly in the text and then simply hand back the ‘corrected version’ to the translator. In my experience that is not the way to go, particularly when it concerns texts containing technical (in my case legal) language. Certain phrases might seem awkward or even incorrect to a second reader, but if it concerns words or phrases in the specific context of a treaty or contract, for example, it could be correct in that instance. (Again, here it helps if the second reader knows something about the field your translation concerns.) I would therefore always recommend using track changes and/or comments/notes. Also, agree on what needs correcting: is it only mistakes and oversights, or are stylistic suggestions welcome as well?

Context. Just as context and purpose affect your translation choices, so too will it be important for a second reader to know the context and purpose of a translation. This will aid them in their assessment of what may be acceptable and what may not be for the translation at hand. This point goes mostly to the stylistics of a translation and to (using the right words on the right occasion).

Confidentiality. Many of the documents we translate for our clients are subject to confidentiality. It goes without saying that a second reader should also be bound by confidentiality. For that reason, it is good practice to inform your second reader that confidentiality is required for the translation at hand, and to have the second reader agree to such confidentiality – in writing if possible. It may seem like an exaggerated measure, but it is only fair to your clients and to yourself.

Fee. When you approach a second reader for your project, solve the issue of payment as early on as possible. I usually have them read a sample and ask how long they expect to take to read the full translation based on that sample. Based on their response, you can then agree on a reasonable (flat) fee. Of course, you have to keep in mind that your having them read your translation with a critical eye should not cost you your entire revenues from the project – a second reading is necessary polish. Don’t be stingy, but don’t give away your entire income either. You have, after all, put a great deal of time and effort into your translation and should reap the rewards.

Interest. Finally, and this may be a point of luxury, see if you can find a second reader that is even moderately interested in the text you present them with, or at the very least with its implications, impact or context. This may sound like a silly thing to remark, but there are certain issues involved here.A second reader who is bored to tears by a text is far more likely to overlook any errors, as they will have a hard time concentrating on their reading and will just want it to be over as soon as possible. The less interested your second reader is, the longer they will take parsing your document for errors, and this goes to economics – the more time they need, the more money you will spend. On the other hand, the more engaged your second reader is, the more likely they will be to think along with you in order to deliver the best quality possible to the product..

So there is an outline of things to take into consideration for the use of second readers.

A final remark: these days I tend to use second readers only for very complex documents, documents that have high impact (such as a court ruling), or for (extremely) lengthy documents. For short, relatively standard documents, I usually wait a little while, then read through them again to ensure that everything has been translated and translated accurately and correctly. I will then ask my partner to read through the document for language to finish the process.

I will now present this text to my partner before posting it up on our blog. He might spot a few mistakes…

Let Purpose Drive Your Translation

In any translation, precision and attention to detail are essential, but translation is more than just moving a set of words from one language into another. Translation is both a job and an art. It’s as important to create an accurate translation of an original text, as it is to maintain – as much as possible – the original author’s voice and the integrity of the text. This holds true when translating fiction, naturally, but holds equally true when doing technical translations.

I am specialized in the translation of all things legal from Dutch to English and vice versa. It goes without saying that the ‘art-part’ of translating is far less important when translating legal documents; the author’s voice really doesn’t come into it all that much. But when translating letters containing legal information, the ‘voice’ already becomes more significant. And when translating the writing of legal scholars, the author really comes into play.

Then there is the issue of readability. There are times when the above mentioned writings are written in a style that suits Dutch academic style just fine, but that will simply not read well for an English or American audience. When that happens, how far are you permitted to go in re-writing the words at your fingertips?

This last issue has almost more to do with communication than with translation. Let me explain.

In the case of our company’s work process, I make sure to find out from the client at the outset of any translation what the purpose is of the translation they want from me, and which audience(s) it is meant for. Is it a translation just for the purpose of handing it off to a few personal friends and family so they can understand what the author has written? Is it intended to be included as a courtesy for potential English readers of a book to be published on the Dutch market? Or is the text intended for an international market, i.e. to be published in England and/or America?

The answers to these questions can greatly influence how much you will be able to or even are required to restyle the piece you are translating. Nowadays I tend to discuss the implications of a translation for a specific purpose, and to indicate what stylistic changes might be required. In cooperation with the client, I will then either suggest or simply implement these changes in the first few pages of the translation for the client’s approval. Then, if we can agree on the style that would best suit the translation of the original piece and benefit its final purpose, the translation can be finished to the satisfaction of our client. Where style changes are significant, we tend to agree on a flat fee for the additional work that’s been done in the process of translating the text.

However this turns out, communication with the client is key during the entire process. Roughly, the three stages we discern in our process are:

  1. preliminary discussions during intake: what is the purpose of the translation, which audience and/or market is the translation intended for, what is required to meet the requirements of a translation that will serve its purpose? Note that during this stage, the author might express a preference to have his text translated exactly as is. If you feel that this is counterproductive to their purpose for the translation, be clear about it. It avoids messy and confusing discussions at a later stage (for instance, when the author tries to get the translation published and style proves to be an impediment to publication).
  2. feedback during (the early stages of) translation: are the stylistic approaches taken by the translation to the author’s satisfaction and can the author agree with your approach? Again, agreeing on what works and what doesn’t can be tricky, but it’s worth it in the long run.
  3. feedback once the translation is done: a final feedback session at the end of a translation can often clear up any remaining issues that might have arisen in the process of completing the work for your client. Be careful to avoid getting into lengthy polishing sessions, though. One run-through is usually the standard for us. Anything more than that should, in all fairness, be billable.

This advice goes as much to translation as to client communications. A clear understanding of what parties want and what is required leads to a clarity that a good and expertly executed translation should provide for everyone involved: client, audience and translator.