Think Before You Speak—Finding the Mot Juste

“Reading furnishes the mind only with materials of knowledge; it is thinking that makes what we read ours.”
John Locke

I am interpreting a plea in court. The judge uses a term I have interpreted thousands of times. All of sudden it strikes me that what I am saying in the target language doesn’t sound quite right to me. I jot it down and promise myself I will do some serious research when I get home.

Later on, I get comfortable in front of the computer with a cup of tea and a stack of reference books at my side, and I begin. Of the first five sources I consult, I get five different translations for the term.

 Sound familiar? Of course it does! In spite of valiant attempts on the part of excellent courtroom interpreters, legal experts and lexicographers, we really don’t have any standard translations for many of the terms and concepts we come across in the courtroom. The problem of lexical equivalency is also found in other interpreting venues—medical, conference and community—but, I feel, not nearly as often as in legal interpretation. Since many fields, such as business, medicine or diplomacy, develop in a more or less parallel ways, with similar philosophies, they usually have vocabulary readily accessible to the interpreter.

 When it comes to legal terms, however, we seem to experience either feast or famine– too many choices or none at all. There are many countries that share the same language, but the development of their legal systems, and by extension, their legal codes both civil and penal, have taken different paths. Add to this the fact that the basic philosophy of the legal system of the United States can be very different from that of the countries in whose language we are trying to seek an equivalent. Finally, we must also contend with differing terminology from state to state in theU.S.

 To decide on the best term or terms to use for a given concept, we are obliged to do some research. Now there are interpreters who don’t feel that it is within their purview to do any sort of legal research, but it is essential. Too many of us tend to rely on terms we learned at the beginning of our career without ever analyzing then to make sure they constitute the best solution, the mot juste.  Always looking for a quick fix, we tend to open up that ancient bilingual law dictionary we bought back in 1985 or glance through a glossary some kind soul has given us and say: “Eureka! If it’s in the dictionary it must be right. I will seek no further.” Then that term gets plugged into every context whether it fits or not.

 This is, of course, the lazy way out. The dedicated legal interpreter seeks to find the very best way of conveying the meaning of a legal concept to the limited English proficient person for whom he is interpreting. Our sources are many: mono-lingual dictionaries, both legal and general, the more recently published bilingual legal dictionaries and, of course, as many legal codes as possible of the various countries whose language we interpret. (Thank goodness for the internet!)

 Yes, these resources are of great importance to us. I truly feel, however, that our greatest resource is in ourselves. If we really grasp the meaning of the term or concept we are interpreting, we will be able to analyze it and thus render it in a coherent way to the LEP. I’m not talking here about paraphrasing or changing register. I’m talking about using logic and good sense to communicate complex concepts rather than going on automatic pilot.

 One of my favorite examples of this is the term “violation of probation.”  No we’re not opening up the probation can of worms—I just want to consider the word “violation.” In most contexts, the word refers to some action that has been committed against a law or ordinance. But if you do some investigation and take some thought as to the context, you will see that the phrase in question really has more to do with failure to comply than with any real action against a given law. I am sure some will disagree with me, but I find that if I interpret the word “violation” in this way it is much more communicative and descriptive of what the concept really is.

 Another example has more to do with clear thinking and analysis than with terminology. As in all languages, but particularly in English, there are words that are used to mean different things in different contexts. One of these is the verb “to agree,” which can have varying meanings according to context. It doesn’t always mean “to concur.” Sometimes it can mean “to accept” or “to accede.” In another context it can mean “to admit” or “to acknowledge.” In another situation it might mean “to pledge” or “to promise.”  The interpreter must be aware of these subtle variations in meaning and interpret accordingly. In one of the courts I work in there is something called a colloquy which is read by the judge to the parties in a certain type of civil case. The word “agree” occurs five times with five different meanings in a few brief paragraphs, and one must be very much on one’s toes to render the correct meaning in the target language.

 So think before you speak. Second-guess yourself often so as not to get into a rut. Write words and phrases down whose meaning and translation you are not quite sure of and do some research! Make your own glossaries with examples. Think things through. Remember, just plugging in an “equivalent” word you picked up somewhere is not good interpreting practice. And you know what? Finding the mot juste can be a lot of fun!

 References                                                                                                                                                          “Find the Right Word” from

“Legal Interpreting and Translating: A Research Guide” Don Ford, Foreign, Comparative, and International Law Librarian,University of Iowa College of Law

“Interpreting Legal Language at the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia: overcoming the lack of lexical equivalents” Ludmila Stern, from the Journal of Specialised Translation Issue 02 – July 2004                                                                           (Don’t be put off by the title. This is a must-read for all those interested in strategies for finding lexical equivalents in legal interpreting.)

5 thoughts on “Think Before You Speak—Finding the Mot Juste”

  1. I concur! 🙂 And thanks for the references.

  2. Gio says:

    In Brazil we have a colloquial expression “Falou e disse” that means you have not only stated it, but made it clear. In modern colloquial English it could be rendered as “Word!”

    It feels so good when we do find THE word that properly fits the gap in the message…

    Right on!

  3. Lissett Samaniego says:


    This post really resonated with me. I love this about our work, the opportunities to fine-tune and learn are boundless. Your references are top-notch. Thanks!

  4. Jennifer De La Cruz says:

    This was a great post. I really identified with the part where you discuss what can be very frustrating about our wonderful field, which is basically, “just give me the answer, already, and I’ll implement it in my daily interpreting, darn it!” It is both this frustration and the beauty of the live encounter that make interpreting a great complement to translation. I don’t know that I’d be complete having only done one or the other, because at least when I concoct a new way of saying something, I can go right to my Limited English Proficient client and try it out, just use it and see if we achieve understanding. We are so fortunate to be practicing in a time when we can also instantly consult colleagues and, if somebody has come up with “the right” term after a long, drawn out search, we can all benefit… until we find another shade of meaning that we want to research. Just goes to show that if you don’t love your dictionaries at some level, you might want to re-think getting into the language profession. 🙂 Saludos

  5. Kathleen says:

    Thanks to all for all the kind comments. Jennifer, I agree with you completely about translation and interpreting. Translation was always my first love, and I retain the habits of research when seeking out equivalents in my interpreting. I don’t think I would ever feel happy just doing one or the other. Both disciplines feed into each other and contribute to one’s competence.

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