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A pragmatic approach for translating legal texts from French into English and across the civil law / common law divide

Rika Birkholz
English Section Head
Translation Services
Tourism, Culture, Heritage, Sport and Consumer Protection
Government of Manitoba


The Translation Services Branch includes an English Section which translates documents from French into English in a wide range of subject matters or disciplines. The translations produced by the English Section are intended primarily for internal purposes to assist officials of the Government of Manitoba.

The English Section regularly translates legal materials both from common law and civil law jurisdictions. Quite clearly, translating legal documents from civil law jurisdictions presents some significant challenges. Over the years, the Section has gradually developed a pragmatic approach in an effort to address these difficulties. This approach is briefly outlined below.

Translator’s role as a cultural broker

Canada is a bijural country where two of the world’s main legal traditions coexist. In the area of private law, Quebec operates under a civil law system, whereas all the other provinces and territories are governed by the common law.

In the Canadian context, when a legal text from a civil law jurisdiction must be translated from French into English for a readership or an audience outside of Quebec, the translator must often craft his or her translation so that it will in effect build a bridge between the civil law and the common law.

The translator must strike an appropriate balance between maintaining legal accuracy or authenticity and using terminology that is accessible or intelligible for the reader of the text. This can at times prove to be a very exacting task.

English civil law terminology

Across the world, a number of countries and jurisdictions with sizeable English-speaking populations are governed by legal systems based on the civil law tradition. For example, Scotland, Louisiana, South Africa, Cameroon and Quebec all operate under civil law systems.

As a result, a specific English civil law terminology has developed in those jurisdictions over the centuries, and it is now used by millions of people around the globe. However, in common law jurisdictions, this terminology is virtually unknown and is generally considered somewhat peculiar and difficult to understand.

For illustration purposes, a few French civil law terms with the corresponding English civil law terms and English common law equivalents appear in the table below.

English civil law terminology
French civil law terms English civil law terms English common law equivalents
délit delict tort
hypothèque hypothec mortgage
meuble/immeuble movable/immovable personal/real property
prescription prescription limitation (period)
tuteur tutor guardian
usufruit usufruct life estate

Translations produced for a common law audience

As mentioned above, the English Section produces translations intended mostly for officials of the Government of Manitoba. As a result, legal translations prepared by the Section must clearly be designed for a common law audience.

The methods to be used in this respect depend on the nature of the texts to be translated.

(a) Official or scholarly texts

For official or scholarly texts – such as judgments, contracts or law review articles – our practice is to use civil law terminology in the body of the text and to provide translator’s notes allowing the reader to make the necessary connections between the civil law concepts at hand and the most closely related common law concepts.

For example, in the translation of a judgment or a scholarly article on civil liability in Quebec, the English word “delict” would be used as an equivalent for the French word “délit” throughout the body of the text, and a translator's note would be included in the document and read as follows: "The concept of delict in civil law roughly corresponds to the concept of tort in common law." Obviously, as part of the translator’s notes, words and phrases referring to concepts that are unique to the civil law (e.g. partnership of acquests, giving in payment and forfeiture of the term) would require more detailed explanations.

(b) Texts intended for the general public

With regard to texts intended for the general public – such as brochures and newspaper articles – our practice is to use functional equivalents.

For example, in translating a brochure on real estate transactions in Quebec, we would use the English words and phrases “real estate”, “real property” and “mortgage” as equivalents for the French words “immeuble” and “hypothèque”, and no mention would be made of the English civil law terms “immovable” and “hypothec”.

Reference materials

McGill University’s Paul-André Crépeau Centre for Private and Comparative Law publishes civil law dictionaries, lexicons and treatises, in both English and French. The Private Law Dictionaries are an excellent compendium of English civil law terminology and are now fully available online. In addition, the Centre has started developing a Guide to English Terminology in the Civil Code of Québec.

Outside of Canada, some very useful resources have become available in the last several years:

Also of note is a recent publication entitled Terminology of Civil Law. Its basic goal is to provide legal practitioners in continental Europe with the specialized terminology required to express civil law concepts in English.

Lastly, a number of English civil law terms used in Scotland, Louisiana and South Africa are listed in the Black's Law Dictionary, the Oxford Companion to Law and the Jowitt's Dictionary of English Law.

Generally speaking, Canadian common law dictionaries published in English contain very few entries in relation to civil law concepts.