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Foreign and Comparative Law Basics: Translation

Background

Although U.S. researchers usually want translations of foreign legal materials into English, they are only occasionally available. Official documents of other countries are published in their official languages. Translations are unofficial, may not be reliable, and are rarely current. Machine translation is possible and can be used for finding documents and getting a rough idea of their content, but they should not be relied on for more than that.

Strategies for Finding Translations

 The first choice for the researcher is to find collections of legal materials already translated.  Some translations of legal materials are available on foreign government sites, commercial databases, university websites, and foreign bar associations and law firms.  If there is none available, the researcher may have to rely on translation of individual words and phrases to supplement partial knowledge of the language, or electronic or machine translation of websites and documents. 

Searching for primary documents will be easier and more accurate if the researcher already has citations or dates, allowing a search by numbers. With a citation, you might even find the documents with a Google search. Some sources for citations and dates may include links to the documents themselves.

To find citations and dates, try:

Constitutions and Translated Topical Collections

Constitutions:

There are several databases that include English translations of national constitutions.

  • Hein Online's World Constitutions Illustrated (subscription database): Current and previous constitutions, in official languages and English translations. 
  • Oxford Constitutions of the World (Subscription database): Full-text English translations of constitutions, with notes on amendments and other background information.  
  • Constitute Constitutions Project: A free resource for making world constitutions available and searchable in English translation. 
  • Codices (Council of Europe): Translations or English-language summaries of constitutional law decisions and constitutional provisions and statutes related to the judiciary from countries around the world.  The site includes an alphabetical index to topics for finding cases.

Some of the subject collections in this guide include full-text translations or English-language summaries or abstracts.

Subject collections with translated materials include:

  • Legislationline.org: OSCE database with European legislation and documents on human rights topics including gender, citizenship, elections, and freedom of religion. Documents, some in English translation, include legislation (including criminal codes), case law, and constitutional articles.
  • Global Insolvency: News and overview articles, and some translated bankruptcy and banking codes and acts.
  • UN Office on Drugs and Crime: The SHERLOC database includes national penal codes and statutes related to terrorism, money laundering, trafficking, and drug crimes, and a database of case law on organized crime and terrorism. Some of the statutes are in English translation. The caselaw database has English summaries and commentary.
  • ECOLEX: Environmental law database with national court decisions and legislation. There are English language abstracts for some legislation and jurisprudence.
  • Global Health and Human Rights Database: Judgments of national courts and international bodies on health and human rights topics. Many judgments are available in English translation, others have English language summaries. 
  • Global Animal LawAnimal welfare legislation, some in English translation
  • WIPO Lex: National laws, treaties, and judgments on intellectual property, with related information.  Some laws available in English translation, but most are with a machine translation feature.

Individual Country Translations

You may be able to find primary legal materials translated into English. Remember that translations are never official. These are only available for some countries, and only for select documents. Human translation is rarely available for the most recent documents. Constitutions of other countries are usually available in English translation, and databases of national constitutions are listed above. Codes and individual statutes are sometimes available in translation. When jurisprudence is available, it is normally only for select Supreme court or Constitutional Court judgments. 

Guides and databases that list English translations:

  • Foreign Law Guide (subscription database): The database includes titles of translations of legal materials and English-language summaries of foreign law, with links if they are available on the web.
  • Law Library of Congress: Translation of National Legislation into English (2012).  A research guide with listings by country of English language print and web resources (legislative, judicial, and secondary), as well as the official sources.  Selected jurisdictions include Afghanistan, Argentina, Brazil, China, France, Germany, Greece, Israel, Italy, Japan, Lebanon, Mexico, and Russia.  The guide includes sections on international organizations and international courts with English language resources and translated national laws.
  • Law Library of Congress: Guide to Law Online: Nations of the World: Lists and links sources for primary legal materials, and notes if they are available or summarized in English. Also includes links to legal guides and other secondary source materials. 
  • NYU Law GlobaLexGlobaLex guides list and describe legal materials and note any that are available in translation. 

Collections of translated laws for individual countries:

China

Finland

  • FinLEX Data Bank: English translations of Finnish Acts of Parliament. Also some translations into German, Spanish, Russian, and Japanese.

France

  • Conseil Constitutionnel: Constitution, founding documents, and a selection of decisions in English translation.
  • Cour de CassationA handful of significant judgments translated into English, none recent.
  • Conseil D'ÉtatAppeals from administrative tribunals. English translations, but only searchable by case number or date.
  • Institute for Transnational Law: Foreign Law Translations: A project with select decisions and statutes from France and Germany translated into English.  Cases are mostly older, with no recent additions to the database.

Germany

  • Gesetze im Internet:  Selected German statutes and codes in English translation
  • German Law Archive: Civil and criminal codes and some individual statutes in English, some older court judgments, and bibliographies of German law in English
  • BundesverfassungsgerichtGerman Constitutional Court. English language abstracts and translations of select judgments. 
  • Institute for Transnational Law: Foreign Law Translations: A project with select decisions and statutes from France and Germany translated into English.  Cases are mostly older, with no recent additions to the database.

Israel

  • Supreme Court of Israel: Selected judgments of the Supreme Court translated into English
  • Versa Cardozo Israeli Supreme Court Project: Searchable database of key Supreme Court opinions translated into English, with a topic search filter.
  • Israel Law Reports: Selected judgments of the Supreme Court in English (KMK18 .A2 I82; 1992-2010)

Japan

Republic of Korea

The Netherlands

  • Dutch Civil Law: The Dutch Civil Code and Code of Civil Procedure in English, as well as some individual statutes and the Constitution

Norway

Spain

Switzerland

Taiwan

 

United Arab Emirates

Vietnam

Latin America

  • Julio Romañach Jr. and Lawrence Publishing Co. publish English translations of Latin American codes. MacMillan Law Library's collection includes Civil Codes of Costa Rica, Argentina, Peru, Chile, Colombia, Brazil, and Venezuela. Search in discoverE to find holdings and call numbers.

Translation of Legal Words and Phrases

If you are able to read some materials in a foreign language, you may just need to find specialized legal terms in English translation to read the document.  Even if you plan to use an electronic translation resource like Google Translate when you find a document, you may need to translate individual legal terms to search in foreign legal databases or government websites.  However, it is better to start with a date or citation (numerals) to search in databases in foreign languages. 

  • IATE: European Union terminology database.  Search EU legal and government terms in EU languages.  Results are from European Union documents that are translated into multiple languages.
  • EuroVoc: European Union thesaurus database with EU terms in all EU languages for browsing by topical headings or searching.
  • Linguee.com: Multi-lingual dictionary and search engine for translation between English and German, Spanish, French, Russian, Japanese, and Portuguese.  Results include terms in context from translated documents, usually from UN, EU, and Canadian government documents.
  • UNTERM (United Nations Terminology Database): Translation of UN terminology between the six UN official languages (including Russian, Chinese, and Arabic), plus German and Portuguese, with results from UN websites.

In addition, the law library reference collection includes bilingual legal dictionaries. Search in discoverE to find titles. 

Machine Translation

Use caution when using electronic translation, since your results are not as accurate as those created by human translators, and machine translation sometimes has difficulty with technical legal terms. Legal terms may have different meanings in different countries or may have no equivalents in other languages. Limit your use to identifying documents and websites and getting a general understanding of the document.

  • Google Translate: Translation of words and phrases or sections of text, webpages, or documents.
  • Global-RegulationSearch statutes and regulations from multiple jurisdictions. 
  • vLex Global (subscription database, law school community only): Use the translation tool to get electronic translation of documents in the database, including a side-by-side view feature.

Subject Guide