Translating Foreign Language Quotations

I’m reviewing a recent law-text published in English and aimed first at the English-speaking Commonwealth legal market, though also the bilingual (French and English) French-speaking market. It’s a comparative law look at how a number of Commonwealth jurisdictions and France – so common law and civil law – deal with some issues common to tort and delict. 

The text contains French-language quotations, some of which make significant points, which are not translated (nor always summarized), though generally the author’s lead-up provides context. Some of the untranslated passages contain information one won’t get from the surrounding English portions.

I concede that all of us (Canadian) legal professionials should be sufficient in our 3 official legal languages (English, French, Canadian-Legalese); however, it’s also true that too many English speaking members of the profession don’t go beyond the first and some fluency in the 3rd.

Kidding aside, I’m interested in reader’s views on the decision not to translate key passages in French into English. It can’t have been an oversight. It makes the text harder to digest for the casual reader, in the context of a subject which is already fraught with problems.

David Cheifetz


  1. I think it’s a damn silly idea for most readers west of Ottawa. I’ve studied french since grade 2, beginning in Russia, and then until Grade 11 in Ottawa. However, whereas my knowledge of French used to be reasonable for the purpose of Franglaise spoken by my old boss, it is nowhere near sufficient to read French legal quotations.

    In my mind, by publishing a paper in English, but leaving French quotes untransalted, the author not only reduces the effectiveness of the argument and the audience of the paper, but also undermines his or her own credibility. As you pointed yout, it raises the question of WHY the passages were not translated. And frankly, the first answer that comes to mine is a sort of latent elitism…”I can read French, can’t you?”

  2. When I went to law school and started reading the law, some 30-35 years ago, this practice was common in Canadian judicial decisions, not just law articles. There are probably many key legal points I never figured out since my college French was inadequate.

  3. Hmmm … I don’t remember that problem in decisions I remember , and your time frame means we started in the same era.

  4. It is a reality we “often” see in Quebec case law where a judge will quote a common law jurisdiction or even a civil law (Quebec, sometimes France) decision or doctrine without translating it.

    We ran across the same dilemma in the translation of the Sedona Canada principles and comments. We chose the ease of understanding for the readers and decided to translate everything in both directions.

  5. Domenic

    Members of the law profession or other people who mght be interested whose only language is French won’t read it.

    People in that group whose only language in English will be able to get by.

    Those sufficiently fluent in both languages will do best. At least in Canada, that direction is more French to English than English to French. I don’t think I’m being too adventuresome in suggesting that’s all the case in the UK and Europe.

    I doubt that the quotations make up 5% of the total text. I doubt the translation cost would be astronomical, if the [bilingual] author wasn’t inclined to do it. I can’t imagine a reason why publication couldn’t have waited the few days? weeks? it would have taken to translate the quotations.

    The book, as I mentioned, is aimed the English speaking market.


  6. My legal studies started in the late Sixties and it was common to have either Latin or French quotations left in the original. The context enabled one to understand, and a straight literal translation would have misled.
    Trying to translate sometimes completely distorts – note the nonsense that one gets in English trying to explain the difference between objective right and subjective right – instead of simply talking about Gesetz and Recht. Or Delict. Or going in the other direction Trust.
    I recently had to produce a bilingual text, and while I started in English, it was fairly easy with Supreme Court decisions and Ontario and federal acts, to cut and paste in parallel translations.
    The deeper question for me is how come so few Canadian law students – and later lawyers – have even a rudimentary comfort with both legal cultures.

  7. Simon,

    I didn’t mean to translate and not include the original. I meant to provide a translation, too. Sorry for not making that clear.

    Make no bones about it – in this case sometimes the context provides no help. Other times it provides less.


  8. David,

    I think that the editor of the book ought to have insisted both that the passages be translated, and that the fact of the translation be obviously recorded. I have in the past put a non-English passage in text, with a translation flagged as mine in a footnote, and vice versa. Moreover, as a journal editor, I have insisted on something similar from authors.

    A book like the one you describe will be useful throughout the common law world, not just in Canada; and whilst Canadian constitutional pieties might just about justify not translating the relevant passages for a Canadian audience, it makes the book potentially far less useful in the rest of the Common law world where such pieties do not obtain, and it cannot be assumed that the readers will have any second language, let alone that any such second lanaguage would French.

    As a consequence, I think you would be more than justified in raising this issue in your review.


  9. Eoin

    Thanks. I couldn’t agree more.

    I’m going to plagirize, if you’ll permit, the “constitutional pieties might just about justify” comment. It’s a better way than anything I’ve thought of to address an issue for which I was strugglling to find a polite way.

    On the literary side, I also think the publisher should have insisted on an editor with an ear for English language construction. Or, that’s what the publisher provided, an ear that worked: or, better two.

    I know that this sort of text isn’t meant to be read in a continuous sitting. I didn’t attempt that. Still, there were too many parts that were both exhaustive and exhausting.