IRAC and Legal Translation

One of my major goals this year was to complete some intense subject-matter training. The in-person UC Davis certificate program in paralegal studies began in June. It’s been exhausting, and will continue to be up through mid-November, but I am already seeing returns on this investment.

Besides the study materials coming in handy at my day job at the law office, learning how lawyers think behind the scenes about their work has led to a major breakthrough moment in how I approach my legal translation projects!

upside down

American lawyers break pretty much every issue down to four headings: Issue – Rule – Analysis (Application) – Conclusion, or IRAC. It’s the preferred method for deciding whether to take on a case, drafting a letter or brief, and presenting an argument in court. For example:

  • Issue—Can I certify this translation?
  • Rule—In the US, anyone can certify a translation they produce by signing a declaration under penalty of perjury that they are qualified and have done their best work.
  • Analysis—I am qualified, did my best effort, and will sign a declaration to that effect.
  • Conclusion—Yes, I can certify this translation.

Now, I’ve translated quite a few divorce decrees in recent years; I know what laws to expect, the general order of the basic parts of the argument, and I know the terms of art to plug in. Last week, though, when I received another run-of-the-mill Hungarian divorce judgment, without even consciously considering what I was doing, I broke the Hungarian text down according to IRAC principles. It was like getting a new pair of prescription glasses—I thought I could see before, but it’s so much clearer now!

All of a sudden, not only do I understand what the words mean and how to render them in English, I also understand how the Hungarian judge was analyzing the parties’s request and facts to reach her decision.  In hindsight, the differences in the source text and a parallel American judgment make total sense, based on the differences I already know about the syntax of the languages. Hungarian sentences play with word order so that the part being emphasized comes first (think Yoda-speak: Hungry, I am!). The Hungarian legal argument followed a similar pattern. The basic structure is, “Regarding issue A, the conclusion is X, because of our analysis in light of Rule P.” Besides the issue, the decision is the most important thing in a court document. The American IRAC structure is turned to ICAR in Hungarian.

Figuring this out won’t outwardly change my translations—in legal translation, it’s a no-no to reorder the paragraphs—but it was certainly a fun surprise to read an everyday project in such a new way. If you’ve been on the fence about investing in some subject-matter training, dive in now!

What special training have you taken recently? How has your work surprised you lately? Share in the comments below!



Extracts of Record for Visa Purposes


A colleague and I were discussing translations of personal documents for visa applications recently, and I was surprised to learn that attorneys regularly ask her for form-based translations of birth certificates. Rather than have her produce a full, alternate-language copy of the original record, they want a data table filled out (similar to the new, multi-lingual extract of record in the EU). In all my years providing translations of birth, marriage, and divorce certificates, I have never had this request from any agency or direct client—and the news went against all my training.

According to both the US State Department website, and to my great relief, the attorneys are not technically correct to ask for this format change:

Translations. Any document containing foreign language submitted to the Service shall be accompanied by a full English language translation which the translator has certified as complete and accurate, and by the translator’s certification that he or she is competent to translate from the foreign language into English.

(emphasis added; source:

The USCIS website says the same thing:
11.3 Foreign Language Documents and Translations.
(a) Document Translations .
All documents submitted in support of an application or petition must include complete translation into English. In addition, there must be a certification from the translator indicating that the translation is complete and accurate and attesting to his or her competence as a translator. See 8 CFR 103.2(b)(3) .
(emphasis added; source:
USCIS notes that, for countries with lengthy and dense civil recording practices, the “keeper of a record” will sometimes issue an extract (a simplified or abridged version), which can be accepted as long as it comes from an official, authorized record-keeper and contains adequate information about the individual(s). Translators are only meant to provide complete and accurate translations of the record—not shorten it.
That said, I wouldn’t be surprised if these websites were maybe out of date, or (more likely) out of sync with actual practices used by civil servants to process requests.  The truth is, neither my colleague who translates into a form template nor I have heard of issues with the applications that use either of our methods. So now, I am curious…
What has your experience been? Have you been asked to translate a document into a different format? Have you had issues with providing translations for visa applications? Please share below!


ATA Statement regarding the Executive Order on Immigration

Dave Rumsey, current president of the American Translators Association, has issued the following statement regarding President Trump’s Executive Order on Immigration:

As the voice of over 10,000 interpreters and translators in the United States and abroad, the American Translators Association is very concerned about President Trump’s recent Executive Order to suspend issuing visas to nationals from certain countries in the Middle East and northern Africa.

This decision will have a negative effect on interpreters and translators who are citizens of those countries and their personal and business relations with the US. It may have a particularly adverse effect on those interpreters who bravely served with US forces in Iraq.

ATA has been monitoring the progress of the US government’s Special Immigrant Visa program, which issues visas to interpreters assisting forces in Iraq and Afghanistan. ATA expressed its displeasure in the New York Times in February 2016 (“Visas for Interpreters”) when the government attempted to delay and complicate the application process for this program. The government ultimately rejected its plans thanks to pressure from ATA and others.

Nevertheless, ATA will continue to raise objections to any obstruction to this successful and valuable program.

ATA values the strengths and skills of its diverse membership, which includes a large number of immigrants to this country as well as overseas members in over 100 countries. The experience and expertise brought by these members not only benefit the association, but the nation at large.

ATA will continue to monitor the situation and encourages members who are concerned about changes to US immigration policy to contact their congressperson, senator or the President through these links:

If you would like specific information on the best way to make your voice count when contacting your representatives, read the Indivisible Guide. (It’s partisan, but provides good tips for everyone.)

I would also encourage all of my colleagues in the US and abroad to practice compassion in their communications and actions in the coming days and months. Individuals on every side of the many issues that have arisen are afraid, but we cannot make good choices and establish positive change from a place of fear. Be kind to your neighbors, colleagues, and strangers in the street. We’re all in this together.



American court interpreters get a voice

Go read this. Now. I mean it.

This is exciting, people. BuzzFeed, a pretty popular source of news and entertainment for many Americans, just ran a piece on the state of court interpreting in the US. In addition to the independent interpreters interviewed, the American Immigration Lawyers Association spoke up on behalf of our profession—they know it’s not easy, and the work we linguists do is pivotal.

american flagConsider this short excerpt:

The immigration court system has long attracted criticism for its patchy, lackluster efforts to provide high-quality language interpretation. A 2011 report by the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University found that the Justice Department consistently failed to provide meaningful language access in immigration courts…

Despite the confusion caused by the author switching back and forth between the terms “interpreting” and “translating,” I’m going to call this a win. Our profession is gaining traction and visibility in the States. There is hope!

Read the BuzzFeed article here:

What do you think? What are your experiences? Share away!

Dahl’s Law Dictionary {book review}

I know that most translators rely more heavily upon internet-based resources (and why not? there are so many good sites out there!). However, hopefully this is not to the detriment of your bookshelves.

After hours staring at a screen, it can be a welcome break to flip through a tangible resource—not to mention that books published professionally, it being no inexpensive feat, are often vetted a bit better than websites before going to press.

The newest addition to my office library is Dahl’s Law Dictionary (3rd edition), by Henry Saint Dahl and Tamera Boudreau. In an incredible stroke of luck, I was able to give it a test run almost immediately with a lengthy new translation project.

Results? It’s an OK dictionary. I love that it has lengthier explanations of terms like biens corporels and mandat, for instance. It’s helpful to learn a bit more about the French system in an American context before making a choice about how to translate a phrase.

There are some noticeable absences, such as the seemingly dozens of different types of juges or avocats one can encounter in French law. Terms are grouped by type of law (criminal, family, property, etc.) in the front of the book, which could be useful for French-learning lawyers but is less useful for someone seeking out straightforward terminology answers.

That odd choice in use of print space is a bit frustrating when the more important, absent terms were left out in favor of non-law-specific terminology like discipline, fortune, and photocopie.

Dahl, a practicing lawyer, does recognize some of these shortcomings in his introduction:

I am well aware that many new volumes could be added to this book, and it could be endlessly supplemented with new words, phrases, and derivatives (xvi).

Still, for someone new to the legal field, lawyers wanting to extend their practice between France and the US (wine country practitioners, perhaps?), and current translators wanting a more thorough explanation of certain terms, this is a decent starter resource. You can learn a little more about the French system on every page.

The French-English version is available here, and there is a Spanish-English version available, too (now in its 4th edition).

What physical resources do you keep on hand in your translation space? Share your recommendations below!

Learning to read law

As a legal translator, I’ve heard legal language dismissed pretty often. But really, it’s not as hard as you might think to start understanding what’s going on in a legal text! Below are some tips that might help you work through your lease, business contract, or case law so you come out on the other side more confident that you’ve understood the jargon:

1. Legal writing is mainly persuasive argument that follows a set structure. It’s a logic flow. Take your first pieces slowly, digest them paragraph by paragraph, sentence by sentence, clause by clause. Read enough and you’ll start to notice patterns, which makes future reading much more accessible.

Alternatively, you can search for templates of the same type of law text here to help you see the basic framework from the start.

2. Take notes as you go to help keep track of the cast of characters, key terminology (capitalized nouns), and the main arguments at play, if you find they are buried under fluff or seem inconsistently used.

3. Recognize boilerplate for what it is—standard language that spells out a lot of definitions and assumptions. It can be tedious, repetitive, obvious… I sometimes skip it and then refer back when I get to a section that needs clarification, rather than trying to keep track of all the minutiae from the get-go.

4. Skim for keywords (by sight or by computerized search) to help you hone in on parts relevant to your query. This gives you a focal point, something to grasp hold of as you delve deeper into the jargon.

5. Accept that some legal writing is just poorly written. Don’t beat yourself up if you find it maddeningly obscure—you may be right! Take another go using a structured plan of attack, and walk away before you melt down. Stay calm in the face of madness.


A suggestion for a structured plan of attack:

Sketch your own brief of the document using a journalism approach: skim quickly for answers to specific questions, one at a time. Start with the Who, then the What, When, Where, How, and Why does it matter. Take breaks often.

You can also speed read and jot down the keywords that jump out at you (think of it like a reading version of one of those “hidden image” visual games—let the superfluous words blur together so the important ones can stand out).

Legal texts are often no more complicated or bloated than those long-winded speeches by that guy at your morning meeting, or academic papers you read in college. You can do this!

How did you learn to read legalese? What works for you when tackling a more complicated or new style of text?

US Citizenship process to change May 5

Beginning May 5th, United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) will be requiring the use of a new naturalization application that is 21 pages long, compared to the 10-page form currently used. Eligibility requirements have not changed. (Click here to see them.)

naturalization ceremony

USCIS claims that the longer application includes more detailed instructions and information about eligibility, and thus should be easier to understand, while others argue that a lengthier form will intimidate citizen-hopefuls who speak English as a second (or third, or fourth…) language and take more time to fill out—a daunting prospect for organizations that assist prospective citizens.

Shortly after releasing news of the updated form, USCIS issued a press release about the availability of a grant for organizations that assist people interested in naturalizing.

What does this mean for translators and interpreters? I’m not sure, but I suspect that legal aid and similar organizations you might do pro bono work for may need extra help after May 5, and again in September when grant winners are announced. Consider offering your volunteer services now. You can help sight-translate forms, prepare supporting documents in English, give short presentations in non-English languages… and I’m sure you and your pro bono clients can think of others. The New Americans Campaign has a list of partners around the country you can contact.

Good luck to all the prospective Americans out there!

Legal language: affidavit vs. declaration

Legal formalities aren’t always as formal as you might expect. Take, for instance, the use in California and federal courts of the declaration, rather than the affidavit.

hand on BibleWhat’s the difference? An affidavit is a notarized, sworn statement from the witness or party to a case giving his or her account of the facts. A declaration is the same statement, unsworn (not notarized). [source]

When translators in the United States certify their translations for a client, very often a declaration can be used instead of an affidavit (though many times clients opt for the extra level of formality and have a notary get involved—just in case).

Section 2015.5 here sets out the language you should use to make sure your declaration can hold its own:

I certify (or declare) under penalty of perjury under the laws of
the State of <insert state name> that the foregoing is true and correct:
_____________             _________
(Date)                                    (Signature)

If you change things up to make this read better for a declaration about your translation, be sure you have the elements “under penalty of perjury,” “laws of <place>,” and “true and correct.” You should also, at the beginning of the statement, give information about who you are and how you are qualified to make such a statement.

As always, for legal advice for specific situations, consult a qualified legal professional (in this case, a notary should be able to help).

What are the laws about affidavits versus declarations in your country or state? Do you make declarations about your translations often? What language do you use?

Certification for language professionals and their work

I’ll be speaking at the Hacker Lab in Sacramento, CA again! This time with a co-presenter.

Join me and Clarissa Laguardia on Saturday, April 12, 2014 from 10:30am–noon for a discussion of the laws and current practices surrounding certification for language professionals and their work here in California* (with some broader discussion of practices in the US and abroad).

Learn about opportunities for interpreter certification, translator certification for rare languages, laws about who can certify translations for use in filings, and the language used for certifying translations. For a taste of what we’ll be looking at, see this California government code.

Questions we’re planning to answer:

  • What does “certified linguist” mean? Who does the certifying?
  • Why would I ever need a certified translation?
  • How do I get a translation certified?
  • What about rare languages? How do I get certified or find a certified linguist for an uncommon language?

What else would you like to know? Ask your questions below, or send me an email at carolyn [at] untangledtranslations [dot] com!

Unable to attend? Sign up for my newsletter to get the slides as a PDF following the presentation!

*This presentation is intended for information purposes only for interpreters, translators, and those who need to hire them. It does not constitute legal advice; for questions about specific situations, make sure to consult your lawyer.

All things legal

Happy springtime!

Last month, we explored the English language from several different angles, including its history, current trends, and revision tips. This month, we’ll be looking more specifically at language, translation, and the law.

These are some posts I’ve already published on the subject:

Are there any questions you would like answered related to this topic? Ask away!