Navigating the Labyrinth of Hebrew Contracts

Navigating the Labyrinth of Hebrew Contracts

Or: the Role of the Legal Translation Specialist

Way back in 2009, while waiting for a ride to WritePoint’s bi-weekly translation course – armed with an impressive-looking yellow folder bulging with course material – I bumped into a well-meaning neighbor, who wanted to know what it was that I was studying. When I replied that I was attending a translation course, she heartily chuckled, “You mean, today they have to teach even that?”

To this day I continue to wonder how that good-old-neighbor would fare if she were thrust into the sea of translation and left to fend for herself. I like to think that she would manage to keep herself afloat…but it’s hard to imagine that she wouldn’t reconsider the value of translation instruction.

Contrary to popular belief, speaking two languages is not synonymous with inborn translation prowess. Translation of any sort is a complex task, and legal translation presents its own unique set of challenges.

For starters, what do you do when faced with a word that could mean ten different things (poly-semantic phrases) –especially where several of the definitions differ from each other only subtly? If fate deemed you a muggle, devoid of any mind-reading abilities, how are you realistically expected to guess what the author had in mind?

Take the Hebrew word ishur for example. It is an integral component of any legal document and could mean anything from confirmation, endorsement, approval, okay, sanction, verification, and imprimatur, to acknowledgment, averment, certificate, certification or authorization. So… is the contract’s Party A expected to obtain acknowledgement, approval or confirmation? The list of possible translations does share a common thread – yes, but I do not recommend using the word “sanction” where it should be “certificate.” Translators had better have a thorough understanding of the subject matter at hand if they are to consistently opt for the right word at the right time.

Now think of the Hebrew word lezakot. The dictionary offers a nice list of possible translations – to acquit, to grant (right, privilege, favor etc.), to credit, and to provide. So when a legal translator is confronted with the unfamiliar term “dira mezaka” – what sort of apartment should come to mind? An apartment that sits in judgment and rules clemently, perhaps? One that grants favors to anyone fortunate enough to cross its threshold? Or maybe it’s an apartment that sells you things on credit. How is the innocent translator to guess that it is not a bewitched dwelling the contract is referring to, but merely a tax-exempt one?  You’ve gotta know the lingo.

Of course, there are always going to be those faux amis (deceptive cognates) that will go to any length to throw you off track. When the unsuspecting translator heaves that well-earned sigh of relief – finally, a non-brainer, same in both languages – his translation is actually in a state of unprecedented danger.  Heaven forbid to render the Hebrew word director as director! You can be sure that the company’s director will not appreciate your confusing him with a mere board member, thank you very much.

And those old spelling woes will come back to plague us here as well. C’mon, breathe easy, you say. If we can’t trust Microsoft for its good old spell-check then whatever can we trust it for? But in the legal translation industry, confusing borne with born, or insure with ensure, for that matter, simply will  not do.

Then there’s the grammar. Did you ever think you would be revisiting Miss Green’s  tenth grade English class twenty years down the line? I assure you: when you tackle that first Hebrew contract you’ll be longing for the day that she conquers the world and forces her outdated laws upon all of its inhabitants. I mean, even that dreary prospect beats spending your days trying to identify the main verb of a sentence that runs on for five pages straight…and why is it that texts sent in for translation always seem to have been written by the most non-linguistically-inclined people on the planet? Not to mention the fact that in Hebrew, it is actually legal to structure a conditional sentence as though it were a past statement…

One last point for now: A Hebrew-English legal translator cannot get by merely with legal proficiency and linguistic know-how. Since Hebrew legal documents are generously interspersed with Talmudic phrases, legal translators without Talmudic background will have to to either take a crash course in ancient Aramaic or else make sure they’re on close terms with their local rabbis. And don’t forget the local Latin professor either – did you ever notice the percentage of pompous Latin phrases traditionally comprising English legal documents? Omnia dicta fortiora si dicta Latina, after all.

So basically, in sum, legal translation is serious business. You are finally realizing your dream and purchasing that property in Israel – do yourself the favor of doing it right!

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