Sunday, February 12, 2006


More literalism outlawed

A comment on the previous post brings to light the fact that several US states have a provision in their law expressly prohibiting the literal translation of 'notary public' as 'notario (publico)' - a measure introduced to stop unscrupulous notaries (who are not authorized to give legal advice etc.) ripping off Spanish-speaking immigants by representing themselves as civil-law notaries (who are). California was the first state to enact such a provision (in 1974), and most of the other states seem to have borrowed it verbatim:
Literal translation of the phrase "notary public" into Spanish, hereby defined as "notario publico" or "notario," is prohibited.
That prohibition would appear to catch only a single term. But some states cast their nets a little wider. Illinois, for example:
A notary public shall not, in any document, advertisement, stationery, letterhead, business card, or other comparable written material describing the role of the notary public, literally translate from English into another language terms or titles including, but not limited to, notary public, notary, licensed, attorney, lawyer, or any other term that implies the person is an attorney. To illustrate, the word "notario" is prohibited under this provision. Literal translation of the phrase "Notary Public" into a language other than English is prohibited.
All the states have this definition of 'literal translation' which is itself anything but literal:
"literal translation" of a word or phrase from one language to another means the translation of a word or phrase without regard to the true meaning of the word or phrase in the language which is being translated.

Although I can imagine classics teachers proscribing literal translations, I'm prepared to bet you won't find a general societal prohibition anywhere on the planet. On the other hand, I'm quite prepared to believe there's a community somewhere in the Midwest that gives figurative interpreters of the scriptures a very hard time, and a lot of folks still think there's something fundamentally wrong with any kind of translation of the Koran.
No, I don't believe that such a thing exists either. But it is interesting that the US states’ legislation was framed in terms of 'literal translation' rather than purely in terms of misrepresentation, deception etc. as it surely could have been. That represents a rare and explicit recognition by public authorities that literal translation is not some sort of 'unadorned truth', as they often seem to assume, and may offer some succour to anybody attempting to resist the frequent official insistence on 'literal translation' as the proper standard for the likes of court interpreters etc.

No doubt the reason translation was specifically mentioned in the legislation was because otherwise a fraudster might have been able to succeed with a defence that he was merely translating his job title literally (and hence, in official eyes, faithfully).
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