Sunday, June 18, 2006


WC in Germany

Seen on board Lufthansa:
Dear Passenger,

For the duration of the World Championship, Lufthansa will be offering you a fitting culinary experience and you can look forward to delicacies created by selected “football chefs”...

From 31st May until the World Championship Final, Lufthansa passengers can savour the specialities created by football fans among the top chefs ...
But what is this World Championship of which they speak? Is it in any way connected to the World Cup currently dominating our lives? Could it perhaps be some parallel or even rival event?

And why would a prestigious flag-carrier like Lufthansa, which proudly proclaims itself ‘Official Partner of the German National Football Team’, be trumpeting an event nobody’s ever heard of when the Greatest Show on Earth is taking place right on its own doorstep?

Unless World Championship is simply the literal translation of Weltmeisterschaft, as the World Cup is known in German, nicely illustrating why literal translation is no translation at all…

Monday, June 12, 2006


Maine French

Onze Taal and others report on a New York Times article about a revival of Maine French.

I suspect that revivals such as this, of previously depised languages or cultures, are a pretty sure sign that the object of the revival is now safely dead. But no matter. What struck me most was the statement:
And Gov. John E. Baldacci … led a trade delegation to France last fall, one of the first since tension with France began after the Sept. 11 attacks
Tension with France after the Sept. 11 attacks? I can only recall tension with Afghanistan. The tension with France, such as it was, came about much later, in connection with the invasion of Iraq and not with 9/11.

I suppose it goes to show just how successful the US administration has been in conflating the two events in the nation’s mind. Or at least in the nation’s media.

Thursday, June 01, 2006


Gratuitous title

There is a widely-held view that translations of legal texts should ‘stick close to the original’, in other words transpose the source-text as nearly word-for-word as the rules of grammar will permit. For adepts of this school of thought, the Civil Code of Lower Canada, latterly revised as the Civil Code of Quebec, must represent something of a holy book. The cryptic nature of many of its provisions make the English version a code in more ways than one. The key to deciphering which is French.

Many of the terms used in the English are obscure anglicizations of French expressions that have perfectly good equivalents in proper English, ‘rent’ for ‘rente’ (annuity), for example. Provisions that are clear and straightforward in the French version become decidedly enigmatic in English: ‘Le mariage se prouve par l'acte de mariage’ (Article 378), for example, is rendered as ‘Marriage is proved by an act of marriage’ (examples taken from Weston’s book on the French legal system).

Then there is the ponderous expression ‘by onerous title’:
(Article 402)
A spouse having neither consented to nor ratified an act concerning any movable property serving for the use of the household may apply to have it annulled.

However, an act by onerous title may not be annulled if the other contracting party was in good faith
As I understand it, this basically means that if the property is sold as opposed to given away then the buyer gets to keep it if unaware of the restriction. OK, so they didn’t want to use the term ‘consideration’ as being too evocative of the Common Law. But ‘an act by onerous title’ is surely unnecessarily opaque. What possible call is there for slavishly translating ‘titre’ by ‘title’? When used in this way, ‘titre’ doesn’t really mean anything – ‘a titre d’exemple’ just means ‘for example’, ‘a titre gratuit’ means ‘free’, as in ‘free of charge’. Its use is a matter of form not content and its semantic payload is minimal. The English word ‘title’ simply doesn’t work that way. It will always be understood as conveying something of substance. Therefore to include it in the translation amounts to adding in something not present in the original.

So much for ‘sticking closely’.

The expression ‘by onerous title’ and its ugly sister ‘by gratuitous title’ are not confined to Canada. They seem to be well-established in various parts of the world with a civil-law tradition but with English as the language of the law. There are several hits for Louisiana and the Philippines, for example.

There is consequently a danger of this sort of calqued terminology seeping into the English of international law. So it was, presumably, that a preliminary draft of the Principles of International Commercial Contracts drawn up by a high-calibre working group at Unidroit (the International Institute for the Unification of Private Law) came to include the expression ‘by gratuitous title’:
An offer by gratuitous title to renounce a claim addressed by the obligee to the obligor shall be deemed accepted if the obligor does not reject the offer without delay, after he has become aware of it.
Happily, this was nipped in the bud by one native-speaker participant, who picked up on the semantic miscue caused by the (gratuitous) insertion of the word ‘title’ (link) …
Finn (…) observed that the terminology “An offer by gratuitous title” might lead some common lawyers to wonder what it meant, whether it was a notion of land law.
… and the offending phrase does not appear in the final version:
An offer to release a right gratuitously shall be deemed accepted if the obligor does not reject the offer without delay after having become aware of it.
Sadly such vigilance for meaningful English is all too rare among the native English-speaking members of international drafting committees, notably in Brussels (previous post).

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