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!



Get ready for #ATA58!


Are you planning on heading to Washington, DC this October for the 58th Annual Conference of the American Translators Association? I sure am — I used to live in the neighborhood where the conference is being held. DC is a great place for language lovers and folks who love to explore different cultures. Here are my recommendations for the conference. Feel free to add yours in the comments below!

At #ATA58

  • Sign up for my pre-conference Advanced Skills and Training workshop on revision (AST-14). We’ll be reviewing the basics of tidying up the written word and spending plenty of time on translation-specific problems like working with non-native texts and dictated translations, and jumping between specialty fields. Details are available here.
  • The French Language Division is putting on a number of fun events, including a happy hour mixer and the annual dinner. (Sign up soon for the dinner; it regularly sells out.)
  • In addition to all the great presentations, I highly recommend attending at least one special event—the job fair and brainstorm networking have been very helpful to me at prior conferences. It’s a chance to meet potential clients and colleagues you might not see otherwise.

Around DC (and walking distance to the conference hotel)

  • Kramer Books is a great place to browse for new reads (and get a potent cup of Irish coffee to go with your purchase).
  • The Phillips Collection has one of my favorite curated art collections in the world—the last time I went, they were still arranging the rooms by subject, rather than artist or time period. It’s a whole new way to see artwork!
  • St. Arnold’s Mussel Bar tucked away on Jefferson Street offers scrumptious moules-frites and a wide selection of Belgian beer.

I hope to see you in DC. Please share your favorite city sites in the comments below—even with the politicking, it’s a wonderful place to visit!

On being a better translator

Welcome back from summer! Vive la rentrée!

This month, let’s look at professional skills and how to improve them—without taking out Masters-level student loans. Here are some translation skills I’ve already published about:

What would you like to learn about this month to improve your translation skills? What advice do you have to give?

Stretch your brain this fall

Bonne rentrée! Welcome back from summer.

Here are a few online classes to get your brain juices flowing again as the weather gets cooler. I can personally recommend the Corpus Linguistics class from FutureLearn. It offered so many great resources for thinking about language usage!

What other opportunities are on your radar? Share in the comments below!

bookshelf and heart

Language studies

Exploring English: Language and Culture

Corpus Linguistics: Method, Analysis, Interpretation

Understanding Language: Learning and Teaching


Business topics

Innovation: the key to business success

Next-level Business Bootcamp for expert translators

From solo to chorus: Outsourcing for beginners

Think again: How to reason and argue


Law topics

The Perils of Translating International Contracts

Introduction to Environmental Law and Policy

Business Plan in a Day {book review}

I’ve been struggling lately with keeping all my ideas, goals, dreams, and routines organized. There’s just too much to fit in my head!

After a lengthy hunt among online and print resources (most of which were way too woo-woo, and lacked concrete, do-this-now advice), I ran across Business Plan in a Day, by Rhonda Abrams. If you can ignore the shameless plugs by the publisher to visit their online resource store, you will get a lot of use out of this book.

Business Plan in a Day, by Rhonda Abrams

Business Plan in a Day is mainly designed for entrepreneurs who need to write up a summary of their whole business concept in order to seek funding. It’s OK if that’s not your goal—every entrepreneur out there will benefit from clarifying their mission and current situation. Abrams breaks down every aspect of doing business into bite-sized pieces and walks you through the process with basically a long questionnaire.

It totally works. In one afternoon, I had sketched out my entire money-making being from A to Z, minus some research that will take more time to compile. My company description, target market, competition, marketing and sales plan, operations, management, development, and financials—all demystified, and only about 2 typed pages long. It was pretty painless, identified the few holes in my previous attempts to get organized, and helped me focus my daydreaming about my future in freelancing.

If you feel like you’re floundering or stagnating in your business life, or have reached a wall blocking your next steps, Business Plan in a Day can help. It’s a no-nonsense, manageable guide to writing down everything you’ve been thinking but haven’t been able to put in words. No headaches involved.

What books, websites, or speakers do you turn to when you need less motivation and more action in your business life? How do you map out your career dreams?

Money tracking basics for freelancers

Record-keeping is a tricky beast when you’re running operations solo.

dollars and cents

These are some random tips and tricks I’ve learned over the last year:

  • Use the Google Drive app on your tablet/iPhone to snap photos of your receipts and store them automatically in a special folder. You’ll need an internet connection for this, but a good alternative is to simply snap the photo then transfer it to your computer. Photos, as opposed to paper receipts, are a legitimate, accountant-approved way of keeping this important record of your expenses, and there’s no risk of cheap ink fading before you need to show it to the tax man.
  • “Good records” mean proving an expense in triplicate, quadruplicate, or even quintuplicate: your bank statement, photo or physical receipt, an entry in your accounting record, and an entry in your day planner/calendar should all show the same purchase was made for the same reason. Keep these around for the past 5 years (if you live in the US).
  • Track the start and stop numbers on the odometer of your car for business trips. I’m terrible at this. A little notebook in the glove box might help me.
  • For those of you who haven’t yet switched over to freelancing full time: if you keep records of your expenses related to ramping up your business, you can deduct them gradually over several years after you start operations. This is true in the US, at least. What about in other countries?

If you really don’t like keeping track of all this, consider finding an accountant to help you. They’re not as expensive as you might expect, especially considering the headaches you’ll avoid. Many offer quarterly checkups, too, so you’ll only have to pay for an hour or so of their time, four times a year. Less than a thousand bucks a year to pass it on to someone who actually understands numbers? Not a bad tradeoff!

What are your best accounting and record-keeping tricks? How do you take care of the financial side of things? Feel free to share your favorite, rock-star accountant’s details below! Don’t forget to tell us the city/region he or she operates from.

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!

Building Great Sentences {book review}

Related to my post earlier this week on the Hemingway app, I’d like to recommend a great book to you about writing effective, clear prose using longer sentences: Building Great Sentences: How to write the kinds of sentences you love to read, by Brooks Landon.

Building Great Sentences book cover

The main purpose of this book is demonstrating how longer sentences can be both effective and interesting to readers of all kinds. It is not meant to be revolutionary—just a simple observation about memorable writing. Right from the beginning, Landon tells us:

Strunk and White do a great job of reminding us to avoid needless words, but they don’t begin to consider all of the ways in which more words might actually be needed. (17)

Longer sentences can be more effective for arguing a point. This is why we often see longer sentences in academic or legal texts. By including as many logic steps within a single sentence as reasonably possible, you are less likely to be misquoted or misunderstood, and more likely to retain your reader’s attention for the duration of your argument. If you ever had to write mathematical proofs during high school, you’ll remember that each individual line of the proof on its own meant very little—it was only when you put all the parts together that you had something significant to say.

Leading transitions (which I’ll leave to Landon to explain) in this type of writing pull your reader from one step to the next, essentially allowing them to take your thought journey alongside you. This can reveal quite a lot about your personality, your beliefs, and your motivations. Done properly, it humanizes you you far better than any snappy, quick marketing copy could.

pulling someone in

Long sentences can actually be more pleasurable to read than shorter ones. They “tease, surprise, test and satisfy” the reader’s intellect (4). They require more concentration and more attention from the reader—with the reward of understanding something better at the end. Comparing short to long sentences is like comparing a quick walk to the mailbox to a half-day hike. Which would be the more memorable to you?

That said, Landon never advocates for incomprehensibility nor for verbosity. As he says,

The most effective prose establishes a relationship between writer and reader. (128)

He offers practical exercises at the end of every chapter for you to practice putting these principles to good use. He also touches on metaphor, rhythm, balance, and suspense—elements which help you form your own style and natural pauses for your readers to process information within a single sentence. Examples from both fiction and non-fiction, male and female authors, academic and popular commentary help balance out his thesis.

Landon offers a great reminder that most writers have very good reasons for crafting sentences a certain way — even the longer, more convoluted ones. And if translated correctly, you can help that author their original thought into effective language for the target audience.

If you work with academic, legal, scientific, or other higher-level texts on a regular basis, I highly recommend Building Great Sentences as a way to improve how you analyze your source texts and transfer the original author’s decision to your translation. Your work can only benefit from understanding this aspect of language better.

Building Great Sentences book cover

Click here to purchase a copy of Building Great Sentences: How to write the kinds of sentences you love to read, by Brooks Landon.

Have you read this book before? What do you think of Landon’s ideas? What other books can you recommend for writers or translators who want to improve their work?

Upcoming CPD opportunities: Spring 2014

seedlings growing

Here are some low-cost opportunities to learn more about your subject matter and hone your skills this spring:

And three classes offered by the law faculty of the Sorbonne (in French), from the blog Words to Deeds.

If you don’t see something here that piques your interest, I encourage you to at least check out the different course providers. Local translator and client associations, MOOC providers like Coursera and FutureLearn, and local colleges or universities offer hundreds of different ways to improve your understanding of your specialty subject matter, source language, target language, business practices… I could go on forever.

Happy studying!


Corpus linguistics research tool

I’ve been talking quite a bit about ABBYY FineReader this month, but today let’s look at something completely different.

cartoon ant

AntConc is “a freeware concordance program for Windows, Macintosh OS X, and Linux.” Which means that it is a free software tool you can download to pretty much any computer to explore words in context. It was created by Laurence Anthony of Waseda University for corpus-based research.

Tutorials for how to use this software are available on YouTube and elsewhere. Scroll down this page for a long list and take your pick. We’ve been using this program in the FutureLearn Corpus Linguistics course. As someone who had almost no experience with either corpus linguistics or the tool in advance of this class, I can tell you, it is simple to use if you just watch the tutorials.

This glossary I shared earlier might be useful for deciphering some of the tricks it can do. Basically, you can use AntConc to analyze word use within a body of texts according to:

  • frequency of a word;
  • frequency of the words that are used in connection to a certain word; and
  • patterns of use of certain phrases.

In its most basic application, you can use AntConc as a monolingual, context-based dictionary of sorts (much like many translators use the bilingual website Simply search for a single word and see how it was used by other authors. Take it one step further, and language teachers have an easy way to get real-life examples of word usage for demonstration to their students (or test creation). One more step further, and you can turn your body of work into plaintext files and find out, objectively, what topics you translate most often. And so on!

Click here to download AntConc to your computer and begin exploring your languages.