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The Manitoba Legal Translation Branch: A brief overview

Guy Jourdain, Director
Legal Translation Branch
Manitoba Justice


Constitutional context

Pursuant to section 23 of the Manitoba Act, 1870, English and French have an official status in the legislative and judicial spheres of government in the province. As a result, all provincial statutes and regulations must be passed in English and French and the courts must be able to operate in both these languages.

These language guarantees were unconstitutionally repealed by the Manitoba Legislature in 1890 and were reinstated by the Supreme Court of Canada in the Forest case in 1979, almost a century later. The scope of the applicable legal requirements was further clarified by the Supreme Court in the Reference re Manitoba Language Rights in 1985. 

In accordance with the ruling in the 1985 Reference, all of Manitoba's statutes and regulations were translated into French and re‑enacted in both English and French during the latter part of the 1980s. Since then, Manitoba has been enacting its legislation in both languages systematically as a matter of normal or standard practice.

Branch's establishment and mandate

Shortly after the Supreme Court's judgment was handed down in the Forest case, provincial authorities established a legal translation unit within the Department of Culture's Translation Services Branch. In 1986, this unit gained a new status and became a branch of the Legislative Counsel Office in the Department of Justice.

 The Legal Translation Branch is in charge of preparing the French‑language version of documents that are subject to the Province's constitutional obligations in the area of legislative bilingualism. It therefore translates the following:

  • All bills tabled in the House, whether they be government‑sponsored or private members' bills;
  • Regulations, ministerial orders, court rules and orders‑in‑council of a legislative nature;
  • Documents related to House business, such as Votes and Proceedings, Order Papers, and Speaker's decisions.

Working method

The Branch conducts its operations based on the working method known as “translation in tandem with legislative drafters.” Under this method, a legislative drafter first writes a draft bill or regulation in English. Once the draft is reasonably close to completion, a legal translator will come on board and prepare a French‑language version, interacting with the drafter until the document is ready in its final form. More particularly, legal translators have direct access to legislative drafters to consult them on the meaning and intent of provisions contained in English‑language drafts. They also sometimes point out imperfections or ambiguities in the original language version, which helps enhance the quality of the final product in both English and French.

Specialists in the field recognize that, in optimal conditions, this approach to legislative translation can yield a very high‑quality product:

“One has to admit, however, that in certain drafting offices translations are handled with such care that the end result is in fact very close to the quality achieved through co-drafting.” [Lionel A. Levert QC, “Bilingual and Bijural Legislative Drafting: To Be or Not To Be?” (2004) 25 Statute L. Rev. 2, at 157.]

“I believe that a properly established translation process that is supported by the political will of the executive and of the legislature results in legislation that clearly respects both cultural groups.” [Donald L. Revell, Bilingual Legislation: The Ontario Experience (1998) 19 Statute L. Rev. 32, at 36.]

Current team and succession planning

The Branch's staff is currently made up of the Director, the Assistant Director, five translators and a secretary. The Director and the Assistant Director are lawyers and the translators hold degrees in translation or related disciplines.

The Branch's workload follows an annual cycle which is characterized by strong peak periods when the Legislative Assembly is sitting and considering bills. As a result, in addition to permanent staff, a network of freelance translators is used to meet the demand during these sometimes quite intensive periods.

Some of the legal translators who began their career with the Branch in the 1980s and the 1990s have already retired and others will do so in the not too distant future. In view of the generational change that will occur, the Branch intends to take a set of proactive succession planning measures. One of the priorities in this regard will be on-the-job training and mentoring for junior legal translators.

A career in legal translation will attract individuals who are interested in both the law and languages and who enjoy challenges and the satisfaction of a job well done. Legal translator positions that will open up periodically in the future will be bulletined on the Manitoba Government Job Opportunities website. Who knows, an exciting career could perhaps be waiting for you in this field!