Categories of Language for Meaning and Clarity in Dual Language or Translated Contracts

4. steven-wei-124690.jpg

Photo by Steven Wei on Unsplash

Two weeks ago, I published a post on using will and shall in dual language or translated contracts. The post caught the attention of fellow lawyers and translators alike, resulting in many interesting exchanges and debates. Some in my comments section, others via private message or email. I’m always open to such exchanges and grateful to every reader who reached out. In particular, my post led to a very interesting exchange with a legal translation professor on the other side of the pond who wrote to me about the challenges of finding adequate teaching material to illustrate how to apply certain concepts to translation. As a former Law Professor in Argentina, I can relate to the challenge of having to teach without the necessary resources.

Long before I ever went to law school, when I was still an aspiring young translator, I worked in-house at a translation agency where my boss taught me her golden rule of translation: for every linguistic decision you make, you have to be able to explain the reasons for your choices. To her, all else being equal, “this just sounds better” was no justification for ever choosing one linguistic option over another. You are accountable to your client. That means that if your client comes back with questions or challenges your choices, you need to be able to explain or justify them.

Her rule stuck with me and, over 15 years later, I still apply it when drafting contracts of my own or translating contracts by other legal practitioners. However, since then, I’ve developed a few rules of my own.

Building on the general guidelines outlined by leading authors such as Adams and Garner, I’ve developed my own techniques for working with dual language or translated contracts. In this post, I will illustrate one such technique. The purpose of this post, therefore, is twofold: to show how I apply categories of language to dual language or translated contracts and to illustrate that pretty much any monolingual manual, style guide, linguistic theory or approach can be applied to translation.

I. Getting Started: Identifying Categories of Language

The first question I ask myself when drafting or translating a contract provision is what purpose it is intended to serve. This isn’t so much a linguistic question as it is an ontological one in that you are inquiring about the provision itself, as an independent entity, to identify its properties, which you will later compare and contrast to the properties of other provisions in the contract if necessary. Once you have identified its purpose, you can linguistically classify its language by category. Following Adams (Adams 2013), that would look something like this:

Purpose of the provision Category of Language
To accomplish an action by means of a speech act Language of Performance
To impose duties on one or more of the parties Language of Obligation
To grant one of the parties discretion as to whether or not to take a specific action Language of Discretion
To prohibit the parties from doing something Language of Prohibition
To impose duties on the parties that do not expressly require action or inaction on their part Language of Policy
To declare facts by means of verbs of speaking Language of Declaration
To state opinions on the legal implications of fact Language of Belief
To address issues that can’t be legally established by the parties in a contract and would ultimately be determined by the courts Language of Intention
To make a recommendation to the other party for the purpose of avoiding dispute Language of Recommendation

II. Cheat Sheet: General Principles

It is impossible to provide a comprehensive guide to applying categories of language to dual language, multilingual or translated contracts in just one blog post. However, the general principles outlined below are a good place to start. If you’re willing to put in the hard work, these principles can easily be developed into your own personal comprehensive style guide. I’ve been developing one for myself for some time and have found the process itself quite rewarding. I now better understand some of my own linguistic preferences and can more effectively explain why certain choices “just sound better” than others.

Category of Language General Principles* Example
Language of Performance Tense: simple present (except future performance)

Voice: active

Useful words: hereby

Red flags: shall, unconditionally, absolutely, forever

Roadrunner hereby leases to Wile E. Coyote the premises described in paragraph X below (the “Premises”).
Language of Obligation Tense: avoid simple present

Voice: passive + shall for obligation or active + must

Mood: indicative

Useful words: shall to mean ‘has to’ only, must to replace shall, when applicable

Red flags: agrees to, undertakes to, promises to, covenants to, commits to + gerund, shall be obligated to, receive, is entitled to, covenant

Wile E. Coyote must pay Roadrunner a monthly rent of $X.
Language of Discretion Tense: present

Voice: active

Useful words: may, is entitled to, is not required to

Red flags: at its sole discretion, hereby grants […] the right to

If Roadrunner does not receive rent payment from Wile E. Coyote by [date], Roadrunner may asses a late charge of $X per day for each day the rent remains unpaid.
Language of Prohibition Tense: future

Voice: active

Useful words: shall not or must not

Red flags: may not, shall refrain from

Wile E. Coyote must not make permanent structural changes to the Premises without prior written consent from Roadrunner.
Language of Policy Tense: present tense, conditional using present tense or present perfect, future using will

Voice: active

Mood: indicative

Red flags: language of obligation

This agreement terminates on [date].
Language of Declaration Tense: present

Voice: active

Useful words: states, acknowledges

Red flags: misapplied terms of art (esp. represents and warrants), rhetorical emphasis

Roadrunner states, as of the Commencement Date, that: (a) the Premises are in compliance with all Applicable Laws; (b) the Premises are in good and proper working condition and free from any material defects.
Language of Belief Tense: present

Voice: active

Useful words: believe

Red flags: categorical phrasing

Roadrunner believes that no property taxes are due on the leased Premises.
Language of Intention Tense: present

Voice: active

Useful words: intend

Red flags: language of obligation, shall be construed

The parties intend as follows: (a) that if any provision of this agreement is held to be unenforceable, then that provision will be modified as necessary to make it enforceable.
Language of Recommendation Tense: present

Voice: active

Useful words: recommends

Red flags: shall and may

Roadrunner recommends that Wile E. Coyote consult with his or her personal legal adviser if he or she is unsure whether X rules apply to this lease.

* Every rule has its exception, so one must exercise caution and good judgment before taking these general principles to heart.

 III. Applying Categories of Language to Dual-Language, Multilingual or Translated Contracts Going into English

Once you have identified the purpose of a provision and its category of language, you can begin to use grammar for meaning and clarity. One of the most common errors I find in my line of work (especially when asked to revise dual language or multilingual contracts) is an excessive and awkward use of shall for provisions that make no sense as an obligation or a prohibition. But this mistake is easily avoidable if, as a drafter or translator, you stop to think about the purpose the provision is serving.

Example 1: Language of Declaration

Context: Lease Agreement
Spanish Source Text: El edificio se encuentra ubicado en [address].
Original Translation: The building shall be located in [address].
The Problem: You don’t need to understand Spanish to know that the original translation shown above was incorrect and needed revision. All you need to do is ask yourself the purpose of the provision in question.  In the context of a Lease Agreement, when you are referring to the location of the premises, you are obviously stating a fact, i.e. where the building is located.
Revised Translation: The building is located at [address].

Example 2: Language of Declaration

Context: Sale of Real Estate
Spanish Source Text: La parte vendedora manifiesta que el bien inmueble se encuentra libre de cargas e impuestos.
Original Translation: The Selling Party warrants and represents that the immovable property is free and clear of liens and charges.
The Problem: First, there is the matter of suitability for purpose of the contract as a whole. The original contract was drafted in Spanish, specifically in Argentina. The parties were an Argentine seller and an American buyer. Neither the buyer nor the seller were legal professionals; and, under Argentine law, the sale of real estate is pretty straightforward. In addition, the translated version was just a formality for the American buyer to understand what he was getting himself into. The parties had agreed that if a dispute were to arise, the Spanish version would prevail because the contract was subject to Argentine law anyway. With all this in mind, there is no reason to drown the English version in legalese.

Second, there is the matter of suitability for purpose of the provision in question. The seller in this case is simply declaring something: i.e. that the property is clear of liens and charges.

Revised Translation: The Seller states that the property is clear of liens and charges.
Notice the following changes: 1) Changing Selling Party to Seller: Why? Because a basic principle of good legal writing is to omit unnecessary words (Garner, Legal Writing in Plain English 2013). There is a word in English for the selling party. That word is seller.

2) Replacing warrants and represents with states: Why? First, because the intended users are not legal professionals, which is a strong argument against legalese. Second, because the purpose of the provision is “to declare facts by means of verbs of speaking.” What this means is that the drafter doesn’t just want to assert a fact, they want to make sure it’s clear that the seller is the one asserting that fact. This places us in the realm of Language of Declaration in Adams’s terms or Statements of Fact in Garner’s terms. Both authors agree that the best way to go is simply to use the word states for its precision. After all, stating is exactly what the seller is doing here. So, the golden rule is to use strong, precise verbs when such verbs exist.

3) Replacing free and clear of with just clear of: In all fairness, this could have gone either way. I could have rephrased it as either free of or clear of. The point is simply to remove one of the two options when they both essentially mean the same thing.  This falls under Garner’s recommendation to avoid duplets and triplets.

Example 3: Language of Discretion

Context: Service Agreement
Spanish Source Text: Acme conserva la discreción exclusiva de cancelar o suspender el servicio, en cualquier momento, por incumplimiento de pago.
Original Translation: Acme retains the sole discretion to cancel or suspend the service due to failure to pay.
The Problem: This is obviously language of discretion that was translated (awkwardly) into English. For reasons of simplicity and clarity, both Garner and Adams recommend using “may” to indicate discretion. In addition, “the sole discretion” is unidiomatic in English and reveals a language transfer in which the English text is actually reflecting Spanish use of definite articles and nouns. Meanwhile, “conserva la discreción exclusiva” is equally unidiomatic in Spanish. The client latter revised the source text to: “Acmé podrá, a su entera discreción […].”
Revised Translation: Acme may, at its sole discretion, cancel or suspend the service at any time for nonpayment.
Notice the following changes: I changed “failure to pay” to “nonpayment” because another principle of good contract drafting is to use a single, precise word when one is available. Why use three words to say something you can express clearly with just one? (For more on this, see Garner, op. cit.)

These three brief examples are far from comprehensive, but for the purpose of this post, I think they paint a pretty clear picture of how to apply categories of language when working from any language into English.

IV. Applying Categories of Language to Dual-Language, Multilingual or Translated Contracts from English into Other Languages

Categories of language can be used both into and out of English. When working from English into other languages, poorly drafted source clauses can often infect the translated version as well.

Example 1: Language of obligation

Context: Interpretation Agreement
English Source Text: The Interpreter is entitled to be reimbursed for all authorized expenses.
The Problem: In this sentence, “is entitled to” meaning “has a right to” is being used with a passive complement clause in which it is implicit that someone is required to provide what the subject is entitled to. However, in practice, it is unclear who has the obligation to reimburse the interpreter. If there are several parties involved, as was the case in this particular contract, this phrasing could harm the entitled party. (For more on the correct use of “is entitled to,” see Adams op. cit.). In translation into Spanish, for example, a legal translator is likely to translate “is entitled to” literally as “tiene derecho a,” which would cause the same legal issues as it does in the original source language.
Possible Solutions: Because this is language of obligation imposed on someone other than the subject of the sentence, it can be phrased as: “The [insert relevant party] must reimburse the Interpreter for all authorized expenses.” In Spanish, the latter can only be correctly translated in the active voice as well. So, problem solved.

Example 2: Language of Prohibition

Context: Lease Agreement
English Source Text: Lessee shall refrain from parking in unauthorized areas or in another lessee’s designated parking space.
The Problem: The clause is intended to prohibit the Lessee from doing something. In the full contract, failure to comply with this clause results in a fine. However, as pointed out by both Adams and Garner, when you ask someone to refrain from doing something, you are not really prohibiting them from doing it, you are simply appealing to that person’s ability to control their urge to do something. Their interpretation is consistent with every possible dictionary definition of the word “refrain,” but just for kicks, let’s look at Merriam-Webster, which defines “refrain” as “to keep oneself from doing, feeling, or indulging in something and especially from following a passing impulse.” Obviously, if we intend to fine someone for non-compliance, we are doing a lot more than just asking them to kindly control their urges. Therefore, we are in the realm of language of prohibition.

If you were to translate this phrase into Spanish, for example, any possible translation of “refrain from” would have several problems: First, any literal translation of “refrain from” would be highly unidiomatic. Thus, fidelity to source on the part of the translator would sound awkward to legal practitioners working with the contract in Spanish. Second, Spanish is very straightforward when it comes to language of prohibition. Beating around the bush to accommodate the English phrasing would raise all sorts of interpretation issues if any claims were brought before the courts by any of the parties involved: Was it the intention of the drafter to beat around the bush with what should otherwise have been a very simple transaction under applicable law? The answer to that question has all sorts of legal implications.

Possible Solutions: Why not use “must not”? “Lessee must not park in unauthorized areas or in another lessee’s designated parking space.” This option is clear and to the point in English, and any possible translation will reflect that clarity and precision, provided the translator is faithful to source.

V. In Conclusion

I know that most of my readers are not necessarily fluent in Spanish, which I why I wanted to focus on the forest and not the tree. The above examples are simply intended to illustrate that any legal complications which may arise from incorrect or odd phrasing in the English version of a contract can easily find their way into all other versions in other languages as well. Of course, the same goes for contracts going out of other languages into English. However, working with categories of language when drafting helps prevent those issues. Similarly, working with categories of language when translating can help legal translators identify potential issues, ask the right questions, and help the drafting party improve the linguistic quality of the source contract while ensuring utmost linguistic accuracy in the translated contract at the same time.

Works Cited

Adams, Kenneth A. 2013. Manual of Style for Contract Drafting. Chicago: American Bar Association.

Garner, Bryan A. 2013. Legal Writing in Plain English . Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press.

—. 2002. The Elements of Legal Style. New York: Oxford University Press, Inc.

Special Thanks

Very special thanks to my friend and colleague Ana Gauz for her insights and feedback while I was writing this post.

  12 comments for “Categories of Language for Meaning and Clarity in Dual Language or Translated Contracts

  1. August 28, 2017 at 10:17 am

    Kudos, Paula, on your thorough and informative explanation. I don’t know about other translators, but I’m going to read it over several times to pick up every nuance.

    I wonder, though, how this method will fare in practice. If I am translating, say, 8000 words in 2 days, and I have to justify what I am translating according to this list, and additional information, I will never finish in time.

    What I would have to do is commit these rules to memory and apply them on the fly. Since time is often not on my side, I might very well choose a term or phrase “because it sounds right”. There just aren’t enough hours in the day. But hey, that’s me.


    • August 30, 2017 at 1:47 pm

      Thanks for your comment, Reed!

      WOW! I would never be able to translate 8000 words in 2 days. How do you do it? On days when I make it to 3000, I feel like the Flash. 😉 But I totally understand what you mean. In my case, I’ve internalized these rules to the point to which I can automatically apply them.


  2. Heike Holthaus
    September 21, 2017 at 6:56 am

    Hi Paula,

    Thank you for sharing this very valuable information. Love the Cheat Sheet!


  3. October 17, 2017 at 9:00 am

    A useful and well-explained post, Paula. I’ve also found identifying language categories helpful for translating contracts. It makes things so much easier and the translations much more consistent

    I also agree that we should take a big hint from how contracts are drafted in English when translating. Contracts are a convention-heavy genre, and the conventions do vary from one language to another. So we must make sure we’re following English convention. If we just translate away, so to speak, we can unwittingly import foreign convention.

    Of course, the drafting style guides are the best place to look for accepted convention. You can use the guidelines in them to temper and test what you see or have learnt elsewhere.

    It can take some work to get to know the drafting guidelines. However, once you do — and once you establish your criteria — translating becomes much quicker and easier. And when you do have this kind of framework behind you, you also have a real leg to stand on when you have to justify your decisions, which, as you say, is always important.


    • February 6, 2018 at 11:10 am

      I couldn’t agree with you more, Rob! Sorry I took so long to reply, but I never got a notification of your comment. Not sure what went wrong with WordPress.

      You mentioned drafting style guides. Do you have any favorites? I’m a big fan of Adams and Garner, and recently discovered Guberman.


  4. February 6, 2018 at 5:17 am

    It’s well set out and argued. The point I would not agree with is the translation of the interpreter’s agreement, where passive is changed to active and the subject of the payment is added by the translator.

    (“The [insert relevant party] must reimburse the Interpreter for all authorized expenses.”)

    Of course the original should say who is liable – bad contract style not to – but as a translator I would not change the text in that way, potentially narrowing down the person who pays.

    By the way, I have not succeeded in adding your blog feed to Feedly. Should it work?


    • February 6, 2018 at 10:49 am

      Hi Margaret,
      Thanks for your comment. You can find very compelling arguments in favor of active voice in this case in the bibliography I cited in my post.

      That being said, changing passive to active and clarifying who is liable is most definitely a linguistic decision that the translator would have to discuss with the client first. However, I do think it’s important to bring these types of issues to our client’s attention, even if the client doesn’t ultimately agree to changing it. At least we know we tried and that we added value to our service. After all, we are the language experts in the client-translator relationship.

      In my experience as a lawyer-linguist, I’ve found that clients are very receptive and really value such feedback on their source documents. It helps build trust and customer loyalty. So, while I agree with you that it would be unwise for a translator to unilaterally decide to change something like this, it would be just as unwise for a translator not to bring up the issue at all. Translators should not be afraid to explain these linguistic issues to their clients and suggest alternative phrasing.

      On an unrelated note, I’ll check out what’s going on with Feedly. Thanks for the heads-up!


  5. February 6, 2018 at 4:54 pm

    Thank you so very much for your comprehensive analysis here and at the ata webinar, Paula.


    • February 6, 2018 at 5:00 pm

      Thank you, Claudia! I hope you found it helpful. 🙂


      • February 7, 2018 at 9:17 am

        Very helpful and eye opening. I have been devouring your blog since yesterday. And I’ve started my own cheat sheet. Thank you again.

        Liked by 1 person

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