It is rightly said that the legal system of any country is the result of historical, political and cultural development of its people. Due to the strong influence of socio-cultural and historical elements, legal translators who translate English to Arabic and vice versa have to work not just between the two languages, but between two cultures and two legal systems as well.
Translation of texts that have strong cultural patterns belonging to either society, and include aspects of economic, political and legal life in them, require excessive background knowledge for a proper translation. The reason for this dependency is that the real meaning of such texts can only be interpreted by reading the texts in the light of the specific social and cultural ideologies.
A classic example of cultural translation is a legal setting described below, where the effect of reference to God by a Spanish public servant was interpreted literally and led to some misunderstandings.
The Spanish public servant is trying to calm down a Moroccan citizen who has just been caught with a large amount of hash. The public servant tells the Moroccan not to worry, that everything will turn out all right. The Moroccan replies "I believe in god". This answer when reproduced literally by the interpreter, offends the public servant who says to the interpreter: "Please tell him he is not the only one who believes in God and that I am no less a believer than he is. But if you really believe in God, you do not traffic in drugs."
Misunderstanding arose because the Spanish public servant literally interpreted the sentence 'I believe in God' without taking into consideration the cultural element behind the sentence. For example in Arabic culture it is natural to utter such sentences when a person is stuck in a problematic situation.
A legal translator is expected to understand such cultural differences and use right words to translate such sentences.
As there are vast differences in between cultures of English and Arabic law, it is difficult to overcome these differences in legal translations. It is also possible that same legal words when read in the target language, imply a completely different meaning and thus make the wrong impact than what it was supposed to make. Thus a translation should always aim at imitating the source text against the cultural background of the target text.
To tackle such situations an English to Arabic translator can resort to different procedures or a combination of such procedures, while translating terms related to a specific culture, cultural terms that don't have equivalent terminology in the target language, and can't explain the underlying meaning correctly. These procedures are omission, literal translation, borrowing or paraphrasing, and should be used depending on the purpose, situation and background of the text where the cultural term is used.
Official document such as marriage and divorce certificates in Arabic law have many Arabic cultural elements inherent in them. These include reference to God through terms such as basmalla, which literally means 'in the name of Allah (God), the Merciful, the Compassionate'. Other settings where an Arabic cultural word is used can be to refer time, by using one of the five prayers that Muslims perform every day.
An Arab reader will find such expressions common and easy to interpret. However some translators have argued that omitting such terms from the target text is a possible solution. Especially when these terms don't have any relevance with regards to the legal validity of the document in question, or when they are irrelevant to the target reader or even when overcoming the religious elements is intended by the expected purpose of target text.
Alternatively the Arabic to English translator might also resort to translating such cultural terms literally, by selecting words which emphasize the basic communicative effect of such cultural terminology.
Problems are also faced while translating words such as 'mutah', 'iddah' and 'khul' which don't have an equivalent word in English law. Another procedure that is used by translators in such situations is Arabic to English and English to Arabic transliteration along with a possible paraphrase which explains the meaning of original term.
Whatever the situation and procedure, an English Arabic translator should select the words of target text wisely, without resorting to inappropriate methods. As a rule of thumb a translator should always proofread the target text, and ensure that the underlying meaning of source text is properly implied in the target text.
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