Legal Translation Dictionaries for Learners

Research output: Contribution to book/anthology/report/proceedingBook chapterResearch


Legal translation dictionaries for learners are reference tools that can help users with domain-specific discourse in a foreign language. The most common type is the bilingual law dictionary covering several or all the sub-fields within the general field of law. However, such law dictionaries tend to treat one or few sub-fields extensively at the expense of the other sub-fields. Furthermore, Nord (2005), among others, shows that translation is not limited to terms but also concerns syntactic structures and genre conventions in the two cultures concerned and involves the use of various translation strategies.

When learners translate legal texts into a foreign language, it is important that their dictionaries can help them produce texts that conform to the expected style. This style requirement may be met by producing translations that use natural and idiomatic language, and really crafted dictionaries may provide the help needed.

Beginners and intermediate learners are unlikely to be familiar with the syntactic structures used in legal language and which distinguish it from LGP and other LSPs, especially those structures that are unusual and complex. The optimal legal translation dictionary for learners should, therefore, contain data about those syntactic structures that cannot be directly transferred from the source language (SL) to the target language (TL), e.g. because the structures have different pragmatic functions in the two languages.

Learners generally encounter problems with those structures that cannot be transferred directly into the foreign legal language. For example, Danish legal language is characterised by the frequent use of syntactic structures that are seldom or never used in Danish LGP. Legal language tends to favour synthetic constructions with front-weight, whereas LGP favours analytical constructions with end-weight. Consequently, learners who have to translate Danish legal texts into a foreign language need to know how to translate such syntactic structures, especially when the target language does not have the same options. Moreover, these syntactic structures are used across sub-genres within the legal genre, e.g. contracts and statutes, so translators are likely to meet them relatively often and need to know how to translate them. Examples of relevant syntactic constructions are pre-modified syntagmas with a noun as the head word, and the use of inversion in conditional clauses. When translating into languages not allowing such structures, for instance, English and French, learners need their legal translation dictionaries to help them with both the legal terms and the syntactic structures.

The uses of textual conventions that characterise the legal genre vary considerably across languages. Beginners and laypersons cannot be expected to be familiar with legal genre conventions in their own language let alone genre conventions in a foreign LSP. Even advanced learners and experts can only be expected to know some of the SL and TL genre conventions in their own LSP. Lexicographers should therefore design their dictionaries so that they contain intra-lingual or contrastive descriptions of the relevant genre conventions. As illustrated in Nielsen (2000) whether the best solution is to retain the genre conventions found in the SL text or to adopt the conventions used in TL depends on the translation strategy chosen.

To meet the needs of learners, legal translation dictionaries should be designed as augmented reference tools. Electronic and printed dictionaries should include sections or CD-ROMs with syntactic, translation etc. data as well as exercises and illustrative documents. The result is that the traditional focus on language system will be extended to language usage because the central unit of translation is not the word but the text.

Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationNew Trends in Lexicography : Ways of Registrating and Describing Lexis
EditorsOlga Karpova, Faina Kartashkova
Number of pages12
Place of publicationCambridge
PublisherCambridge Scholars Press
Publication date2010
ISBN (Print)978-1-4438-1945-9, 144381945X
Publication statusPublished - 2010


  • Lexicography
  • Law
  • Legal translation
  • Translation
  • Genre
  • Syntax
  • Specialised lexicography
  • Dictionaries
  • Specialised dictionaries
  • Genre conventions
  • Reference works


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