Illuminate Legal Terminology™
Law Explorers

Legal research, legal writing, and legal translation are the lights that illuminate the dark, unknown regions in the universe of law.


Can we translate our customary methods and techniques when research transports us into another legal culture?

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Cultures and legal systems other than our own have made valuable contributions to the history of written law.

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Translation provides a laboratory in which we can learn to elevate our capacity to select and use legal terminology.

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To the philosopher Aristotle,[1] the sensibilia communis or “common sensibles” were “the qualities . . . that may be apprehended by several senses” in contrast with “the proper sensibles, or qualities that can be apprehended by only one sense.”[2]  Aristotle used the term “common sense” for “the faculty by which the common sensibles are perceived.”[3]

The significance of the term “common sense” has changed over time.[4]  The meanings have included “[o]rdinary or normal understanding,” “[g]ood sound practical sense in everyday matters,” and “[t]he collective sense or judgment of humankind or of a community.”[5]

Those more recent notions of “common sense” are, without doubt, indispensable qualities for legal researchers,[6] legal writers,[7] and legal translators.[8]  But the antiquated Aristotelian notion of common sense offers us the opportunity to pursue an objective that is more important than ever in the global, polylingual domain of law — shed new light on[9] research, writing, translation, and their common sensibles (language, legal systems, terminology, definitions, interpretation, etc.).

Research, writing, and translation facilitate communication, education, and participation in law.  However, manifestations of the Unknown — obscurity, uncertainty, ambiguity, unfamiliarity, indeterminacy, etc. — penetrate throughout legal research, legal writing, and legal translation and inhibit communication, education, and participation.

How can we learn to manage the Unknown?  First we need to recognize that research, writing, and translation complement and enrich one another, especially in law:

  • Research fortifies writing[10] and reinforces translation.[11]
  • Writing completes translation[12] and communicates research.[13]
  • Translation liberates research[14] and invigorates writing.[15]

When we recognize and appreciate those benefits, we discover that the interrelation[16] of legal research, writing, and translation is like an Aristotelian common sense or faculty[17] through which we perceive the common elements and influences of the three.  This conception of the interrelation generates a constructive approach[18] to what we do not know about law, language, and the cultures in which they exist:

  • We create additional dimensions for our legal research, writing, and translation and facilitate interaction with people both within and across languages and borders.
  • Because the forms and functions of research, writing, and translation are not universal, these additional dimensions take into account the diversity of the legal systems of our world.
  • When we explore another language or legal system, we learn to understand our own language or legal system better.

Consequently, the interrelation of research, writing, and translation demonstrates that languages and legal systems can complement and enrich one another in some manner and to some degree if we cultivate and exercise our capacity for innovation and imagination.

With the interrelation of research, writing, and translation, we can develop the capacity — individually and collectively — to illuminate legal terminology and to communicate, educate, and participate in the diverse universe of language, law, and legal systems.  We advance toward these objectives when we explore law and legal systems through the arts of research, writing, and translation.

[1] Aristotle and his teacher, Plato, share a reputation as “the most influential philosopher of the western tradition.”  Simon Blackburn, comp., The Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy, 2nd ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008), s.v. “Aristotle” (internal reference omitted).  Although “knowledge of Aristotle . . . almost disappeared in the west” during the sixth century CE, “[i]t was preserved . . . by Arabian and Syrian scholars, from whom, with the revival of learning in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, it passed again to western Europe.”  Glen R. Morrow, “Aristotelianism,” in Dictionary of Philosophy, ed.  Dagobert D. Runes, 15th ed. (New York: Philosophical Library, 1960), 22-23.  “With the rise of modern science [Aristotle’s] authority has greatly declined,” but his philosophy “is still a force in modern thought,” and “a very large part of [the] technical vocabulary, both in science and in philosophy, is but the translation into modern tongues of the terms used by Aristotle.”  Morrow, “Aristotelianism,” 23.

[2] “In the psychology of Aristotle,” the term “common sensibles” signified “the qualities of a sense object that may be apprehended by several senses; e.g. motion (or rest), number, shape, size; in distinction from the proper sensibles, or qualities that can be apprehended by only one sense, such as color, taste, smell.”  Glen R. Morrow, “Common Sensibles,” in Runes, Dictionary of Philosophy, 59.

[3] “In Aristotle’s psychology,” the term “common sense” signified “the faculty by which the common sensibles are perceived.  It is probable also that Aristotle attributes to this faculty the functions of perceiving what we perceive and of uniting the data of different senses into a single object.”  Glen R. Morrow, “Common Sense,” in Runes, Dictionary of Philosophy, 59.

[4] “In early modern writing,” the term “common sense” was used to refer to “the faculty responsible for coordinating the deliveries of the different senses.  In this meaning the objects of common sense are the ‘common sensibles’, i.e. qualities such as extension and motion that can be detected by more than one sense.  Later the term loses any special meaning, coming to refer just to the sturdy good judgement, uncontaminated by too much theory and unmoved by skepticism, that is supposed to belong to persons before they become too philosophical.”  Blackburn, The Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy, s.v. “common sense” (internal reference omitted).

[5] Shorter Oxford English Dictionary: On Historical Principles, 6th ed., s.v. “common sense.”

[6] “Occasionally, researching a problem in all conceivable sources is needless, unwarranted, or repetitious. . . . [M]any simple problems do not call for exhaustive research.  Common sense and professional insight play significant roles in legal research.”  Steven M. Barkan, “The Legal Research Process,” in Roy M. Mersky and Donald J. Dunn, Fundamentals of Legal Research, 8th ed. (New York: Foundation Press, 2002), 20.

[7] What we write will not make sense if it is not written in a manner that promotes communication with the reader:

[N]o debemos olvidar que el éxito de nuestro trabajo, en buena medida, depende de que logremos comunicarnos con el lector, por eso hay que esforzarse en propiciar los medios para que la lectura resulte agradable.  Recordemos que toda escritura carecería de sentido si no fuera encaminada a ser leída.

Sergio T. Azúa Reyes, Metodología y técnicas de la investigación jurídica, 6th ed. (México: Porrúa, 2005), 90-91.

[8] Legal translators need to take into account the common sense or understanding in both the source-language community and the target-language community:

[T]he quality of legal translation is fully and primarily dependent on the ability of a translator to adequately interpret the original text and to transpose it into the language and legal culture of the recipient.

Marta Chromá, Legal Translation and the Dictionary, Lexicographica: Series Maior (Tübingen: Max Niemeyer Verlag, 2004), 49.

[9] The metaphor “shed new light on” and related expressions signify something like “[r]eveal new facts” or “give fresh meaning, different emphasis to.”  P.R. Wilkinson, Thesaurus of Traditional English Metaphors, 2nd ed. (London: Routledge, 2002), s.v. “cast/shed/throw fresh/new light on,” I.78d.

[10] “Legal research informs legal writing, and legal writing is meaningless unless its content is accurate.”  Barkan, “The Legal Research Process,” 14.

[11] Legal research provides information based on which translators can make better decisions about the selection of legal terms:

La traducción implica un proceso continuo de adoptar decisiones, a fin de ir eligiendo el término adecuado en cualquier situación.  En muchos casos, la práctica y la experiencia del traductor le permiten identificar los términos dentro su contexto, y en otros tiene que acudir a diccionarios u otros medios documentales.  Pero ¿quién le asegura que puede confiar en la comprensión de esos términos que traduce?  ¿Cómo puede saber que el lector comprende lo que trata de comunicarle?  Sin duda, la terminología le proporciona la clave, aunque sólo sea parcial, para la comprensión de las palabras y de los mecanismos de su formación y uso.  Esto, sin duda, es suficiente justificación para dedicar una atención especial a este apartado de búsqueda documental, pues si no resuelve todos los problemas del traductor, al menos le proporcionará una mayor y más clara comprensión para reflexionar sobre las dudas que se le presenten.

Ma. Antonia Álvarez Calleja, Traducción jurídica (inglés-español), Educación Permanente (Madrid: Universidad Nacional de Educación a Distancia, 2002), 219.

[12] Fundamentally, the translator is a writer because the formulation of the target text requires the translator to learn the difficult art of writing rather than rely on improvisation:

Rédacteur, le traducteur l’est foncièrement puisque toute traduction finit par une rédaction.  Rédiger — écrire — est un art difficile cependant.  Il s’apprend et ne s’improvise pas.

Jean-Claude Gémar, Traduire ou l’art d’interpréter: Fonctions, statut et esthétique de la traduction; Tome 1, principes (Sainte-Foy: Presses de l’Université du Québec, 1995), 202.

Translators sometimes serve as co-drafters, and writers sometimes serve as co-translators.  The objective of co-drafting methods is to “coordinate the place and time of the production of authentic texts and combine translating and drafting in various ways and degrees.”  Agnieszka Doczekalska, “Drafting or Translation — Production of Multilingual Legal Texts,” in Translation Issues in Language and Law, eds. Frances Olsen, Alexander Lorz, and Dieter Stein (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009), 123. Professor Umberto Eco used the term “co-translator” with regard to his participation in the pursuit of “an alternative solution” for the English translation of a problematic segment of dialogue in his novel Foucault’s Pendulum.  Umberto Eco, Experiences in Translation, trans. Alastair McEwen, Toronto Italian Studies: Goggio Publications Series (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2008), 7-8, 61-62, n. 1.

[13] “Legal research is often futile if the results are not communicated effectively.”  Barkan, “The Legal Research Process,” 14.

[14] One of the purposes for which “statutes, court decisions, scholarly works and other types of legal documents” are translated is to permit foreign readers to have access to information, although the target-language version is for reference only.  Deborah Cao, Translating Law, Topics in Translation 33 (Clevedon: Multilingual Matters, 2007), 11.  Many researchers feel more comfortable when foreign laws and legal materials have been translated into their own language, but that comfort frequently “comes at a high price — the loss of authority.”  Marci Hoffman and Mary Rumsey, International and Foreign Legal Research: A Coursebook (Leiden: Martinus Nijhoff, 2008), 17.

[15] The preparation of legislation in the multilingual nations of Switzerland and Canada provoked this observation:

Experience has shown that permitting the translator to participate in the production of the source text frequently results in improvements in both the source and target texts.  Forced to analyze every detail of the source text, a critical translator tends to detect unclear or ambiguous formulations, misleading logical connectors, and other linguistic defects that obstruct comprehension of the source text.  If detected before the text is definite (i.e., prior to adoption), such defects can be corrected, thus improving the source text and in the end the target text as well.

  Susan Šarčević, New Approach to Legal Translation (The Hague: Kluwer Law International, 2000), 97 (references omitted).

[16] The English noun “interrelation” signifies “[a] mutual or reciprocal relation.”  Shorter Oxford English Dictionary, s.v. “interrelation” (parentheses omitted).

[17] Speakers of American English use the noun “faculty” to refer to “[a]n inherent power or property of the mind,” “a mental capability,” or “the teaching staff of a university or college.”  Shorter Oxford English Dictionary, s.v. “faculty.”  The etymology of the noun reveals that it derived “from [mediæval Latin] facultas, [translation Greek] dúnamis power, as used by Aristotle.”  C.T. Onions, ed., The Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology, with the assistance of G.W.S. Friedrichsen and R.W. Burchfield (New York: Oxford University Press, 1996), s.v. “faculty.”  In addition to “strength, might, power, ability,” the senses of that Greek word included “the force of a word, etc., meaning.”  [Henry George Liddell and Robert Scott], A Lexicon: Abridged from Liddell and Scott’s Greek-English Lexicon (Oxford: Oxford at the Clarendon Press, 1996), s.v. “δύνᾰμιϛ.”

[18] We can have an approach to “what we do not know” if we look at it as a physical object.  Such a metaphor applies “our experiences with physical objects” to “events, activities, emotions, ideas, etc.”  George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, Metaphors We Live By (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003), 25.  The senses of the noun “approach” include “[t]he act of coming near(er) in space” and “[a] means or way of approaching; a passage, avenue, channel, etc. giving access. . . . Also [in figurative use], a way of addressing a task, dealing with a subject, etc.; an attitude.”  Shorter Oxford English Dictionary, s.v. “approach . . . noun.”


Title of page Interrelation of Research, Writing, & Translation
Address of page
Geographic areas Switzerland; Canada; Europe
Languages English; Spanish; French; Greek; Medieval Latin
Terms and phrases sensibilia communis; common sense; legal research; legal writing; legal translation; language; legal system; legal terminology; definition; interpretation; culture; Unknown; obscurity; uncertainty; ambiguity; unfamiliarity; indeterminacy; interrelation
Metaphors, metonyms, and other figurative expressions shed new light on; approach; illuminate
Publications Fundamentals of Legal Research; Legal Translation and the Dictionary; Translation Issues in Language and Law; International and Foreign Legal Research; New Approach to Legal Translation; Metaphors We Live By
Authors Glen Morrow; Sergio Azua Reyes; Ma. Antonia Alvarez Calleja; Jean-Claude Gemar; Umberto Eco; Deborah Cao
Individuals Aristotle; Plato