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Law Explorers

Legal research, legal writing, and legal translation are the lights that illuminate the dark, unknown regions in the universe of 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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An old proverb counsels us that what we don’t know can’t hurt us.[1]  That is not the case in law, however, where we cannot use ignorance as an excuse,[2] and where “easy judgments” and “careless assumptions” about other legal traditions and systems cause misunderstandings.[3]

We will encounter the Unknown many times during our exploration of language, law, and legal systems through the portals of research, writing, and translation.  The Unknown frequently appears in the form of one its synonyms:

  • the foreign or the obscure,
  • the uncertain or the unsettled,
  • the puzzling or the overlooked,
  • the undetermined or the ambiguous,
  • the novel or the concealed,
  • the undefined or the unresolved,
  • the hermetic or the alien, and
  • the unfamiliar or the indeterminate.[4]

The Unknown is an inescapable element in research, writing, and translation:

  • In research, we encounter “problems that involve unfamiliar subjects.”[5]
  • In writing, we “can never predict what a given word will do to a given reader.”[6]
  • In translation, we encounter “certain ambiguous terms that have no exact equivalents in other languages.”[7]

Below the surface of research, writing, and translation, the Unknown waits for us to discover it in the unsettled state of dictionary definitions,[8] the puzzling incongruence of legal concepts,[9] and the novel interpretations of texts.[10]

We frequently encounter the Unknown when our horizon moves into another language or legal system.  In the terminology of foreign legal systems, we encounter not only “unfamiliar terms”[11] (such as fallo plenario)[12] but also “familiar terms used in unfamiliar ways”[13] (such as “jurisprudence”).[14]

However, we do not have to go beyond the frontiers of our own language or legal system to encounter the Unknown:

  • Uncertainty exists within one language (intralingual[15] uncertainty) as well as between two languages (interlingual[16] uncertainty).[17]
  • Ambiguity conceals itself in detailed definitions.[18]
  • Indeterminacy[19] infiltrates translation,[20] linguistics,[21] and law.[22]

The philosopher Confucius instructed that “[w]hen you know a thing, to recognize that you know it, and when you do not know a thing, to recognize that you do not know it.  That is knowledge.”[23]  But we do not always recognize the limitations of our knowledge; sometimes “[t]he less we know, the more we think we know.”[24]

The Unknown offers more opportunity for discovery than cause for despair.  As researchers, writers, and translators, we cannot eliminate the Unknown — but if we learn to recognize the Unknown, we can manage[25] (or manipulate[26]) it.

[1] The oldest version (1576) of this proverb has attributed to author George Pettie.  John Simpson, ed., The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Proverbs, with the assistance of Jennifer Speake, 2nd ed. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996), 143.  The context of the relevant part of Pettie’s book, however, was a story of love, marriage, and jealousy.  Herbert Hartman, ed., A Petite Pallace of Pettie His Pleasure, by George Pettie (New York: Oxford University Press, 1938) 185, 203-4.  We can easily distinguish that context from the topics with which we concern ourselves because, in law and legal terminology, we benefit from the recognition of the Unknown and of its possible consequences.

[2] This lesson forms the basis of at least six legal maxims:

  • Ignorantia eorum quae quis scire tenetur non excusat” (“Ignorance of those things that anyone is bound to know does not excuse”);
  • Ignorantia excusatur non juris sed facti” (“Ignorance of fact is excused but not ignorance of law”);
  • Ignorantia facti excusat, ignorantia juris non excusat” (“Ignorance of fact excuses; ignorance of law does not excuse”);
  • Ignorantia juris non excusat” (“Ignorance of the law does not excuse”);
  • Ignorantia juris quod quisque scire tenetur neminem excusat” (Ignorance of the law, which everyone is bound to know, excuses no one"); and
  • Ignorantia legis neminem excusat”  (“Ignorance of law excuses no one”).

Bryan A. Garner, ed., “Appendix B: Legal Maxims,” in Black’s Law Dictionary, 9th ed. (St. Paul: West, 2009), 1835.

[3] Professors John Henry Merryman and Rogelio Pérez-Perdomo offered this comment on the differences between the Civil Law and Common Law traditions:

We can . . . recognize the subtlety and complexity of the differences between the two legal traditions and come to understand how a misunderstanding of those differences can affect all forms and phases of international dealings.  The easy judgments, the careless assumptions that people within both traditions commonly make about foreign legal systems, are a constant source of misunderstanding and irritation. . . . A person who would not think of going to a foreign nation without some understanding of its history, politics, language, and literature will almost invariably arrive in total ignorance of one of the oldest and most important elements of its culture:  its legal tradition.

John Henry Merryman and Rogelio Pérez-Perdomo, The Civil Law Tradition: An Introduction to the Legal Systems of Europe and Latin America, 3rd ed. (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2007), 151.

[4] Jerome Irving Rodale, ed., The Synonym Finder, rev. Laurence Urdang and Nancy LaRoche, with the assistance of Faye C. Allen et al. (Emmaus: Rodale Press, 1978), s.v. “unknown”; Christine A. Lindberg, comp., Oxford American Writer’s Thesaurus, 2nd ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008), s.v. “unknown.”

The noun “ambiguity” is among the synonyms of the noun “unknown.”  Lindberg, Oxford American Writer’s Thesaurus, s.v. “unknown.”  The adjectives “ambiguous” and “unknown” have common synonyms such as “uncertain,” “indeterminate,” and “obscure.”  Lindberg, Oxford American Writer’s Thesaurus, s.v.v. “ambiguous,” “unknown”; Rodale, The Synonym Finder, s.v.v. “ambiguous,” “unknown.”

[5] “Regardless of one’s level of sophistication in a particular field of law, a researcher encounters problems involving unfamiliar subjects.”  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), 14.

[6] The quoted words are from a well-known critic of legal language, author Rudolf Flesch:

Words are, by definition, unpredictable.  In writing, you can predict more or less accurately what your general style and your language structure will do to your readers in general, but you can never predict what a given word will do to a given reader.  That’s a fascinating but exasperating fact anyone who writes has to face.

Rudolf Flesch, The Art of Readable Writing (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1949), 158-59.

Should we add the adjective “unpredictable” to our list of synonyms for the unknown?  After all, at least one thesaurus includes “unknown” among the synonyms of “unpredictable.”  Rodale, The Synonym Finder, s.v. “unpredictable.”

[7] The quotation is from Professor Ferdinand de Saussure’s explanation of the distinction “between the language itself and speech”:

It should be noted that we have defined things, not words.  Consequently, the distinctions established are not affected by the fact that certain ambiguous terms have no exact equivalents in other languages. . . . No word corresponds precisely to any one of the notions we have tried to specify above.

Ferdinand de Saussure, Course in General Linguistics, eds. Charles Bally and Albert Sechehaye, with the collaboration of Albert Riedlinger, trans. Roy Harris (Chicago: Open Court, 2009), 13-14.

[8] “Comparison of corresponding entries across dictionaries reveals at a glance the lack of consensus among lexicographers as to the content of definitions.”  Roy Harris and Christopher Hutton, Definition in Theory and Practice: Language, Lexicography and the Law (London: Continuum, 2007), 127.

[9] “It is . . . important to remember that legal concepts from different countries are seldom, if ever, identical. . . . It is futile to search for absolute equivalence when translating legal concepts.”  Deborah Cao, Translating Law, Topics in Translation 33 (Clevedon: Multilingual Matters, 2007), 59.

[10] In the Islamic legal tradition, for example, exegetes have provided different interpretations of some expressions and structures of the Qur’an.  Hussein Abdul-Raof, Qur’an Translation: Discourse, Texture and Exegesis, Culture and Civilization in the Middle East (London: Routledge, [2006]), 27, 65.

[11] “Researchers into foreign and international law often encounter unfamiliar terms, or familiar terms used in unfamiliar ways.”  Marci Hoffman and Mary Rumsey, International and Foreign Legal Research: A Coursebook (Leiden: Martinus Nijhoff, 2008), 13.

[12] The fallo plenario was created to resolve the problem of contradictory judgments after Argentina’s courts of appeals (cámaras de apelaciones) were divided into salas:

En el siglo XX, al dividirse las cámaras de apelaciones en salas, se plantea el problema de que éstas podrían dar fallos contradictorios.  Para resolverlo se crea el “fallo plenario”, sentencia dada por todos los miembros de la cámara reunidos ”en pleno”, obligatoria para la salas de esa cámara, y para los jueces de primera instancia de esa repartición judicial (fuero).

Ricardo D. Rabinovich-Berkman, Principios generales del derecho latinoamericano (Buenos Aires: Astrea, 2006), 69.

The Ministerio de Justicia y Derechos Humanos of the República de Argentina provides a website, SAIJ: Sistema Argentino de Información Jurídica, through which we can learn more about laws that are relevant to the fallo plenario.  Infojus, accessed November 4, 2013,  The relevant laws include artículos 301, 302, and 303 of Ley 17.454 of the Código Procesal Civil y Comercial de la Nación and Ley 26.853, which replaced or repealed those artículos and created new cámaras de casación in 2013.  Infojus, accessed November 4, 2013,

In the federal judicial system of the United States, appeals are generally decided by a panel of three judges from one of the courts of appeals.  “The Appeals Process,” United States Courts, Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts, accessed November 4, 2013,  But Rule 35 of the Federal Rules of Appellate Procedure (FRAP) permits en banc hearings or rehearings before the Courts of Appeals.  “Federal Rules of Appellate Procedure with Fifth Circuit Rules and Internal Operating Procedures,” United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, accessed November 4, 2013, available in portable document format (PDF) at  To what degree are the fallo plenarios of Argentina similar to the “en banc determinations” of the United States?

[13] Hoffman and Rumsey, International and Foreign Legal Research, 13 (see note 11).

[14] One dictionary cautions users that, although the English term “jurisprudence” can technically possess the same meaning as its Spanish homonym jurisprudencia, the established custom is to select another Spanish term as the translation of “jurisprudence”:

[T]écnicamente el término inglés jurisprudencepuede tener el significado con que suele emplearse su homónimo español «jurisprudencia», esto es, según un comentarista, como «sinónimo grandilocuente» de la práctica o dogmática de un sistema jurídico determinado; sin embargo, dadas las peculiaridades del sistema inglés, con relativamente pocas leyes escritas y una gran masa de precedentes y decisiones judiciales, la costumbre más arraigada es la de emplear el término case lawpara jurisprudencia, reservando el de jurisprudencepara designar los fundamentos históricos, científicos y filosóficos del derecho; por esta razón, es muy importante tener presente el contexto en el que aparece el termino para traducirlo adecuadamente; entre las posibles traducciones destacamos «filosofía del derecho», «ciencia jurídica», «teoría del derecho», «dogmática jurídica comparada», «jurispericia» y «jurisprudencia».

Enrique Alcaraz Varó and Brian Hughes, Diccionario de Términos Jurídicos: A Dictionary of Legal Terms; Ínglés-Español; Spanish-English, 10th ed. (Barcelona: Ariel, 2008), s.v. “jurisprudence” (emphasis modified).

[15] The prefix “intra-” is of Latin origin and means “[o]n the inside” or “within.”  Michael Quinion, Ologies and Isms: A Dictionary of Word Beginnings and Endings (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005), s.v. “intra-.”  In the adjective “lingual” and the combining form “–glot,” respectively, English has inherited the Latin (linguaor lingualis) and the Greek (glôssa, glôtta, glōttos,or glōssos) words for language or tongue.  Webster’s Third New International Dictionary: Of the English Language Unabridged; with Seven Language Dictionary, s.v.v. “–glot,” “lingua,” “lingual”; Robert K. Barnhart and Sol Steinmetz, eds., Chambers Dictionary of Etymology (Edinburgh: Chambers, 2008), s.v. “gloss²,” “lingual,” “polyglot.”

[16] The prefix “inter-” is of Latin origin and means “[b]etween or among” or “mutually or reciprocally.”  Quinion, Ologies and Isms, s.v. “inter-.”

[17] “Linguistic uncertainty, whether it is ambiguity, generality or vagueness includes both intralingual uncertainty, that is, uncertainty found within a language, and interlingual uncertainty, that is, uncertainty arises when two languages are compared or when one language is translated into another language.”  Cao, Translating Law, 19.

[18] “Detailed definitions give the impression that legal language is entirely accurate and without ambiguity.  This is not the case.  Legal vocabulary is full of words with multiple meanings, while no amount of detailed definition can avoid all cases of ambiguity.  Indeed, the likelihood of ambiguity increases with more detailed definition.”  Heikki E.S. Mattila, Comparative Legal Linguistics, trans. Christopher Goddard (Farnham: Ashgate, 2009), 70.

[19] A concise definition of the noun “indeterminacy” is “[t]he quality of being indeterminate; lack of definiteness.”  Shorter Oxford English Dictionary: On Historical Principles, 6th ed., s.v. “indeterminacy.”  The adjective “indeterminate” possesses several senses, which include “[n]ot fixed in extent, amount, character, etc.”; “vague, lacking in precision”; “[n]ot fixed or established”; “uncertain”; and “not settled or decided.”  Shorter Oxford English Dictionary, s.v. “indeterminate.”

[20] The phrase “indeterminacy of translation” refers to “[t]he philosophical thesis . . . that different translations of a sentence in a given original language can be incompatible with one another but at the same time all equally compatible with the semantically relevant facts expressed by the original sentence.”  Giuseppe Palumbo, Key Terms in Translation Studies (London: Continuum, 2009), s.v. “indeterminacy of translation.”

[21] In the field of linguistics, indeterminacy can refer to not only “cases where a division or distinction cannot be precisely drawn” but also “cases where a decision will be made differently by different criteria.”  P.H. Matthews, comp., The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Linguistics, 2nd ed. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007), s.v. “indeterminacy.”

[22] In legal theory, the term “indeterminacy” refers to “[t]he argument that legal questions do not have correct answers, or at least not unique correct answers.”  Brian H. Bix, A Dictionary of Legal Theory (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009), s.v. “indeterminacy.”  The adjective “indeterminate” is used in the general legal sense “[n]ot definite; not distinct or precise.”   Bryan A. Garner, ed., Black’s Law Dictionary, 9th ed. (St. Paul: West, 2009), s.v. “indeterminate.”

[23] Confucius, The Analects of Confucius, trans. Arthur Waley (New York: Vintage Books, 1989), 91 (reference omitted).  Translators have produced different versions of the same passage (17) from the second book of the Analects of Confucius.  Before sinologist Arthur Waley presented his version during the middle of the twentieth century, another sinologist, James Legge, had already produced a different translation near the end of the nineteenth century:

When you know a thing, to hold that you know it; and when you do not know a thing, to allow that you do not know it; — this is knowledge.

Confucius, Confucian Analects, the Great Learning and the Doctrine of the Mean, trans. James Legge (New York: Dover, 1971), 151.  A third translator, David Hinton, produced another version near the end of the twentieth century:

When you understand something, know that you understand it.  When you don’t understand something, know that you don’t understand it.  That’s understanding.

Confucius, The Analects, trans. David Hinton (Berkeley: Counterpoint, 1998), 15.

[24] Jean-Jacques Rousseau, “A Discourse on the Arts and Sciences,” in The Social Contract and Discourses, trans. G.D.H. Cole, rev. J.H. Brumfitt and John C. Hall, updated by P.D. Jimack (London: J.M. Dent, 1993), 16, note.

[25] The intention here is to use the English verb “manage” with “can” in the sense “cope with the difficulties of” or “succeed in using, dealing with, etc.,” but the senses of “manage” include other interesting possibilities, which include “[h]andle, wield, or make use of (a weapon, tool, implement, etc.)” and “manipulate for a purpose.”  Shorter Oxford English Dictionary, s.v. “manage . . . verb.”

[26] We manipulate words to facilitate an agreement, for example, because “[s]ometimes it is only the flexible [words], the calculated ambiguity, that will bring men to any agreement at all, whether in constitutions . . ., statutes, or contracts.”  David Mellinkoff, The Language of the Law (Eugene: Resource Publications, 2004), 450-51 (emphasis and references omitted).  Some assert that lawyers have manipulated legal language “to baffle the public” and “to maintain [the legal profession’s] monopoly of understanding.”  Plain English Campaign, Language on Trial: The Plain English Guide to Legal Writing (London: Robson Books, 1996), 8-9.

The historical senses of the English noun “manipulation” include both skill (“the skillful handling of any object”) and deception (“clever use of influence especially to one’s own advantage” and “unfair changes in books of account or other records to one’s own advantage”).  Barnhart and Steinmetz, Chambers Dictionary of Etymology, s.v. “manipulate.”  We encounter both aspects among the modern senses of the related verb “manipulate,” which include “[h]andle, [especially] with (physical or mental) dexterity” and “manage by ([especially] unfair) dexterous contrivance or influence.”  Shorter Oxford English Dictionary, s.v. “manipulate.”


Title of page The Unknown
Address of page
Geographic areas Middle East; Argentina; United States of America
Languages Latin; Greek; English; Spanish
Terms and phrases proverb; legal system; research; writing; translation; equivalent; definition; legal concept; interpretation; terminology; term; fallo plenario; jurisprudence; intralingual;interlingual; ambiguity; indeterminacy; translation; linguistics; knowledge
Events The Analects
Publications The Civil Law Tradition (3rd ed.); Fundamentals of Legal Research; Definition in Theory and Practice; International and Foreign Legal Research; Principios generales del derecho latinoamericano
Authors George Pettie; Bryan Garner; Rudolf Flesch; Ferdinand de Saussure; Deborah Cao; Hussein Abdul-Raof; Heikki Mattila; Brian Bix; Jean-Jacques Rousseau; David Mellinkoff; Plain English Campaign
Websites, blogs, and other online resources Sistema Argentino de Informacion Juridica, United States Courts
Individuals Confucius
Organizations Ministerio de Justicia y Derechos Humanos (Argentina); Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts; United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit