Do We “Translate” or “Interpret” Foreign Legal Texts?

Today’s Read:

Mateusz Zeifert and Zygmunt Tobor, Legal Translation Versus Legal Interpretation: A Legal-Theoretical Perspective, International Journal for the Semiotics of Law – Revue internationale de Sémiotique juridique volume 35, pages 1671–1687 (2022), available open access at

I’ve often thought about this question when it comes to foreign legal texts. Law librarians are asked to find translations of foreign statutes and cases all the time, and in my opinion this is one of the most problematic requests that we deal with, especially when the researcher wants a quick answer.

To make a translation of a normative legal document like a statute or a code (or, especially in common law jurisdictions, a judicial opinion) useful to someone who does not read the language it was originally written in, what needs to be done to it? Does it need to be merely translated, or does it need to be interpreted also?

If it’s the latter, then the problem of machine-generate translations like those rendered by Google Translate is immediately obvious. Computers, alas, are inferior interpreters to humans for a task like this, especially if those humans have legal training and knowledge. I firmly believe that computers will never be able to reason their way through ambiguities in legal texts as well as a person can. There are too many variables at play that just can’t be programmed.

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