Today Translations featured in the Economist: Wigscratchingly tricky

“If you think English words are difficult to translate, look at some foreign ones”
Source: The Economist, June 12th 2004

A LEAPGROG appeal is an interesting bit of the English legal system: in a case of sufficient public importance, the appeal may go straight form the High Court to the House of Lords, bypassing the Court of Appeal. For those familiar with the children’s game of leapfrog, it’s a useful metaphor. But how to translate it? The game of leapfrog is Bockspringen in German [literally deer-jumping], saut-mouton in French [sheep-jump].

There are circumlocutions and rough equivalents-Sprungrevision [literally “jump-appeal”] in German, for example. But in a survey of 1000 professional legal translators by today Translations, a specialist London firm, “leapfrog appeal” was voted the hardest English legal phrase to translate, closely followed by “toxic tort” (harmful exposure to a poisonous chemical). Other troubling legal arcane included “Michaelmas term” (court sittings between November 2nd and 25th).

It cuts both ways. Untranslatable words, especially form big widely used languages, usually migrate untranslated: panache and schadenfreude are now English words, le weekend and das Briefing are embedded in French and German. But for smaller languages things can be tricky. Esperanto, for example, has a verb krokodili meaning “to speak your native language when everyone else is speaking Esperanto” – more euphonious than useful, perhaps.

The survey highlighted ten particular such words. Top of the list came ilunga, a word in Tshiluba (a central African language) for a person who tolerates abuse only twice. That as closely followed by shlimazl, Yiddish for chronically unlucky person. Like a legal translator, perhaps.

Top ten most untranslatable legal phrases:

1. Leapfrog appeal
2. Toxic tort
3. Sectioned under the Mental Health Act
4. Chambers
5. Trustee
6. Barrister
7. Michaelmas Term
8. Probation officer
9. Common Law
10. Court of Appeal

At Today Translations, our linguists know there’s more to professional translation services than mere words. That’s why they come armed with specialist legal, technical, commercial and scientific translation skills. And the knowledge that perfect translation oils the wheels of international business.