Coherent Translations of Catalan Laws are of Vital Importance


Dr. Mark B. McNaught

[Catalan translation]

Having gone through and refined the English-language translations of numerous Catalan government documents, including the White Paper on independence, it is clear that many are not easily comprehensible to native English speakers.

The ability of people of good will living abroad to clearly understand the reasons for Catalan independence is of vital importance for the legitimacy of the referendum, and ultimately international recognition of independence. It will also be important as the Catalan constitution and the structure of the legal system are developed, enabling them to be subject to scrutiny and refinement on an international scale.

It is in this spirit that I have gone through the English translations of several Catalan laws, and have rewritten them to be more comprehensible in English. The following example is a translation of a passage in the January 2014 Resolution 479/X of the Parliament of Catalonia by which it is agreed to submit to the Presiding Bureau of Congress the draft constitutional act delegating to the Generalitat of Catalonia power to authorize, call and hold a referendum on the political future of Catalonia, followed by a rephrased translation.

Original text

English Translation

Correction to English Translation

El poble de Catalunya, al llarg de la seva història, ha manifestat la voluntat d’autogovernar-se, amb l’objectiu de potenciar el progrés, el benestar i la igualtat d’oportunitats dels ciutadans i de reforçar la cultura pròpia i la identitat col·lectiva.

Throughout their history, the people of Catalonia have expressed the will to govern themselves, with the goal of promoting the progress, welfare and equal opportunities of citizens and strengthening their own culture and collective identity.

Throughout Catalonia’s history, its people have aspired to self-governance, both to promote the progress, welfare and equalityi of its citizens, as well as and strengthen Catalan culture and collective identity.

Aquesta voluntat s’ha expressat en l’actual període democràtic d’acord amb el marc constitucional i estatutari, que ha permès la recuperació de les institucions d’autogovern i d’un important espai d’autonomia política i administrativa.

This will has been expressed in the current democratic period in accordance with the constitutional and statutory framework, permitting the recovery of self-government institutions and a large area of political and administrative autonomy.

In the current democratic era (since 1978) this aspiration has been expressed within the prevailing constitutional and statutory framework, enabling the re-establishment of self-governing institutions and broad political and administrative autonomy.

Els darrers anys la majoria de forces polítiques i socials catalanes ha impulsat mesures de transformació profunda del marc polític i jurídic de Catalunya, la més important de les quals va ésser la reforma de l’Estatut impulsada pel Parlament l’any 2005. Però aquest procés no va reeixir a causa de les dificultats posades des d’institucions estatals i, molt especialment, a causa de la Sentència 31/2010 del Tribunal Constitucional, que va barrar el pas a l’evolució del marc polític i jurídic de Catalunya en els termes que estableix l’Estatut del 2006, aprovat per les Corts Generals i referendat pel poble de Catalunya.

In recent years the majority of Catalan political and social forces have promoted measures of profound transformation of the political and legal framework of Catalonia, the most important of which was the reform of the Statute of Autonomy of Catalonia passed by the Parliament of Catalonia in 2005. However, this process was unsuccessful because of the difficulties created by institutions of the Spanish State and, in particular, because of Sentence 31/2010 of the Spanish Constitutional Court, which barred the way to the evolution of the political and legal framework of Catalonia under the terms established by the 2006 Statute, approved by the Cortes Generales (Spanish Parliament) and by the people of Catalonia in a referendum.

Recently, a majority of Catalan political and social forces have sought to profoundly transform the political and legal framework of Catalonia, most importantly by the reform of the 2005 Catalan Statute of Autonomy driven by the Catalan Parliament. However, this process was obstructed by the Spanish State, especially by Spanish Constitutional Court ruling 31/2010 impeding the development of the Catalan political and legal framework of the 2006 Statute. This had been approved by the Cortes Generales (Spanish Parliament), and by the Catalan people in a referendum.

Les manifestacions massives del 10 de juliol de 2010, de l’11 de setembre de 2012 i de l’11 de setembre de 2013 van ésser una expressió clara del rebuig de Catalunya al menysteniment de les decisions de les seves institucions i dels seus ciutadans i van obrir una nova dimensió de les aspiracions nacionals.

Mass demonstrations on 10 July 2010, 11 September 2012 and 11 September 2013 were a clear expression of Catalonia’s rejection of the disregard for the decisions of its institutions and its citizens, and opened a new dimension of national aspirations”.

In the mass demonstrations held on July 10, 2010, September 11, 2012 and September 11, 2013 in opposition to this decision, Catalans clearly rejected the actions taken against their institutions and citizens, and shed a new perspective on Catalan national aspirations.”

Quantitatively this excerpt was reduced from 225 words to 190, while the number of sentences was increased from 5 to 6. Qualitatively, the wording and phrasing was restructured to give greater clarity to the English translation.

Throughout the translations, I have not only changed many of the terms, but also the sentence structure to better reflect English language usage and style. Romance languages like Catalan and French tend to employ longer sentences with more clauses, which when translated into English is often difficult to follow and understand. In many cases long sentences were broken up into shorter ones, and the order of phrases shifted to read better, while remaining faithful to the original and in some cases clarifying the meaning.

My view on concise writing is heavily informed by George Orwell’s Politics and the English language. One of his cardinal rules to effective writing is using the simplest word possible, and eliminate any unnecessary or superfluous words to reduce the sentence to its essential meaning.

Another tendency which reduces the clarity of some translations is employing double negatives, or other linguistic structures which obscure its simple meaning. The following is another excerpt taken from the 2014 Referendum Law.

Original text

English Translation

Expressed more concisely:

A més, tractant-se d’un referèndum consultiu i d’àmbit territorial autonòmic, no ens trobem amb un cas en què la naturalesa de la matèria faci inaplicable l’article 150.2 de la Constitució.

In addition, a consultative referendum in a territorial area corresponding to an autonomous community is not a case in which the nature of the subject makes Article 150.2 of the Constitution inapplicable.

Moreover, Article 150.2 of the Spanish Constitution is not applicable, given that it is a consultative (non-binding) referendum within a specified territory of an autonomous community.

This excerpt also illustrates the occasional inconsistency in terminology. Reading the entire text, the terms ‘referendum’, ‘consultation’, and ‘consultative referendum’ ‘on Catalonia’s political future’ are used interchangeably, without clarity on the differences of meaning.

These are but a few examples of how the English language translations of Catalan laws can be further refined. It is understandable that some of the translations may have some errors and inconsistencies, given that there are also translations in Castilian and French, and resources may not be available to have a native speaker go through all translations to verify their precision.

Be that as it may, before and after the independence referendum the laws will have a much higher profile, and it is vital that the translations, especially those in English, be of the highest precision and quality. As unfair as it may seem, there are those who judge the seriousness of the independence movement by the quality of the English language translations. My Anglophone Catalan friends often wince when reading the Catalan English-language press when encountering mistakes in articles, and doubt the competence of the translator and the quality of the information. As unfair as this may be, this reflects poorly on the broader independence movement. Also, it is a missed opportunity to clearly convey the reasons for Catalan independence to a broader audience. If people of good will throughout the world are to understand and support Catalan independence, the Catalan Parliament especially must only release texts translated with the utmost precision.

Over time, it would be beneficial for all translations of Catalan Laws and the Parliament website be revised, and the laws be coherently organized in a Corpus of Catalan Laws. Also, a glossary of Catalan legal terms should be developed, similar in English to Black’s Law dictionary in the United States. The laws must be clearly written with legal terms precisely defined if laws are to be properly abided by.

Ultimately, there is much to learn from other legal systems to better inform the development of Catalan jurisprudence. Putting the Catalan constitution and legal system into coherent English will enable them to be opened up to international academic scrutiny and development, especially to avoid the structural problems which plague other monolingual legal systems.

For example, the US legal system is contained within the US code, in dozens of books spanning over the decades. Often, revisions of previous laws are effected through amendments passed in later laws, by specifying word changes to the original. When one reads the revision, it is impossible to decipher the meaning without referring to the previous law, and even when the law is conceptually pieced together the meaning is often still ambiguous and subject to vastly different interpretations.

Moreover, drafting can be much improved, for Catalans have the opportunity to learn from the structural impediments in other countries’ legal systems, to develop one that assures individual rights and liberties, affording universal access to the law. Requiring that laws be clearly written in layman’s language, and coherently organized in the Corpus of Catalan Laws would go a long way to achieving that end.

After three centuries of being dominated by Spanish jurisprudence, the most important objective of independence is securing the sovereign right of Catalans to adopt and abide by their own laws. It would be a waste if the future Catalan legal system were not made a model of equitable and egalitarian jurisprudence. Producing high quality English translations and refining previously adopted laws should be an integral part of this process.

Mark McNaught a TwitterDr. Mark B. McNaught is a Maître de Conférences in Law, Philosophy, and US Civilization at the University of Rennes, France