Lex dura

The Japanese justice system is undergoing wide-ranging reform. The Office for Promotion of Justice System Reform working within the Cabinet has just today expressed an “urgent need for an efficient and systematic mechanism to translate Japanese legislation into foreign languages in response to calls from lawyers and businesspeople.” The communiqué goes on:

Despite Japan being the world’s second-largest economy, the government has no unified system (sic) to translate Japanese laws into English and other languages. Some major laws have been translated by related ministries or the private sector, but the quality of the translation is often poor and terminology varies.

The group under the Office for Promotion of Justice System Reform of the Prime Minister’s Office suggests that government-led translation of the laws is necessary to facilitate international trade and promote foreign investment in Japan, as well as to assist foreign residents in the country.

“It has long been a big problem that Japanese laws have not been translated coherently and systematically,” said Noboru Kashiwagi, a professor of law at Tokyo’s Chuo University and a member of the group. “Today marks the first step and it is very meaningful.”

The proposal also advises utilizing a computerized system developed by Nagoya University, which includes an electronic dictionary and a database of past translations. But the group has yet to reveal an estimated cost for the project.

It remains undecided whether the task should be taken up solely by the government, to be commissioned to the private sector, or to be done by establishing a new quasi-governmental organization. But the group is envisioning a public-private collaboration.

Now, would it be worth while suggesting to Japan that they check on how the European Union has handled a similar problem – the translation of Community law into local Member State languages as part of membership commitment? Probably not. As far as I know, there is no ’systematic mechanism’ or ‘unified system’ in place to help EU translators through the immense task of localizing the canonical 85,000 pages of EU law. In the past, though, this very process has largely contributed to the development of a translation ‘culture’ in countries such as Denmark, Sweden, Finland and Greece, and has usually been handled via government contracts to legal translators, working in groups.

Since this translation work is ruled by the subsidiarity principle, it is up to each country (rather than a central agency) to get the job done. The exceptional nature of the EU situation lies precisely in having a Member State translate and integrate EU legislation into its own national law and language. Almost by definition, nations normally draft their own laws, rather than localize someone else’s. And here lies the rub: the process involves translators, lawyers, revisers, and anyone else working to ensure that the resulting texts are legally watertight, and optimally adapted to the local context. A hard process to automate as a unified system, but worth attempting surely. EU legal translation is, if you like, inward bound, exclusively for the use of the new Member State.

In the case of Japan, however, it looks as if the translation is outward bound to the world at large. Yet presumably the proposed ‘English’ translation of Japanese law has to use English terms from somewhere – the U.S., Canada, the U.K., Australia etc, and is therefore implicitly localizing to a legal culture, if not a specific country. For an example of the translation of the Arbitration Law, see here.

The patent lack of systematic mechanisms or unified systems for localizing EU law was brought home to me the other day by a report in Eurolang, the news site for Lesser Used Languages in Europe, which proudly stated that Slovenia, one of the newest members of the EU, has developed some ‘computer-based translation tools’ to help in its EU translation effort. What Slovenia has actually done is to develop “a collection of 62,000 technical-term equivalents, called Evroterm (using Trados’ Multiterm), and a bilingual (English-Slovenian) aligned corpus of translations of legal acts by the EU, called Evrokorpus (currently 8.7 million words). You can access them at (SVEZ) website. But I would call these ‘digital resources’ rather than tools.

What is astonishing to me is that this should be news. Why is it that after a decade of European Commission language technology R&D programs, some with multi-million euro funding, we have no better technology to handle these fundamental translation tasks than a term management system first built in the late 1980s and standard corpus (or translation memory) software? I’m sure that the experience of other Member State translation efforts has propagated some form of best practice for localizing Lex europae. I am equally sure that the reason why that there is no rich corpus of bilingual translations in the newer EU countries to feed translation memories and help automate some of the slog, is because national legal content has typically not needed to be translated.

But looking back, it seems a singular error for EC technology czars to have failed to fund innovative projects (even if they proved inadequate) to this critical EU task. They might just have come up with a more “unified system” (e.g. a set of legal ontologies to drive a translation engine) to help new Members get this job done quicker, better, cheaper. And they might have been able to promote it to the Japanese to help with their legal translation projects. Come to think of it, the Japanese too sunk trillions of yen in 5th Generation computing, producing electronic dictionaries, machine translation systems, knowledge bases and so on. All to no apparent avail. Lex dura indeed, sed lex – and highly lexical with it.

Andrew Joscelyne
European, a language technology industry watcher since Electric Word was first published, sometime journalist, consultant, market analyst and animateur of projects. Interested in technologies for augmenting human intellectual endeavour, multilingual méssage, the history of language machines, the future of translation, and the life of the digital mindset.


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