Variation of legal terms in monolingual and multilingual contexts: Types, distribution, attitudes and causes

Table of contents

Variation is a natural and widespread phenomenon in language: “language is inherently variable, both across time (diachronically) and at any specific point in time (synchronically)” and it “universally involves alternative forms and structures that compete with each other in usage” (Krug, Schlüter, and Rosenbach 2013Krug, Manfred, Julia Schlüter, and Anette Rosenbach 2013 “Introduction: Investigating language variation and change.” In Research Methods in Language Variation and Change, edited by Julia Schlüter and Manfred Krug, 1–14. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. DOI logoGoogle Scholar, 2). The growing awareness of and interest in terminological variation has been observed since the mid-1990s, with the advent of computerized analyses of terms and the re-orientation of Terminology towards more functional communicative approaches. The univocity principle, which aimed at reducing synonymy and polysemy in special languages, was one of the key tenants of the 20th-century mainstream approach to terminology – Wüster’s General Theory of Terminology. Yet this prescriptive approach failed to deal satisfactorily with variation (L’Homme, Heid, and Sager 2003L’Homme, Marie-Claude, Ulrich Heid, and Juan C. Sager 2003 “Terminology during the past decade (1994–2004): An Editorial statement.” Terminology. International Journal of Theoretical and Applied Issues in Specialized Communication 9(2):151–161. DOI logoGoogle Scholar, 153) and, as numerous studies have shown, terminological variation does exist in special languages more frequently than expected and is estimated to range from 15% to 35% (Daille 2005Daille, Béatrice 2005 “Variations and application-oriented terminology engineering.” Terminology. International Journal of Theoretical and Applied Issues in Specialized Communication 11(1):181–197. DOI logoGoogle Scholar). Currently, variation has become one of the fundamental research topics in Terminology (L’Homme 2020L’Homme, Marie-Claude 2020 “Being a privileged witness of twenty years of research in terminology: An editorial statement.” Terminology. International Journal of Theoretical and Applied Issues in Specialized Communication 26(1):1–6. DOI logoGoogle Scholar, 3), especially in functionally-oriented approaches.

Although less eagerly acknowledged, this is also true of legal language, even though arguably to a smaller degree. Variation is in principle considered undesirable in legal language and hence attempted to be curbed and controlled. Yet there is a growing pool of empirical corpus studies which evidence its existence in legal texts. The objective of this chapter is to investigate the concept of variation in relation to legal terminology – its nature, types, distribution and attitudes towards it – and to identify its causes in monolingual and multilingual settings by synthesising and consolidating findings which are scattered across publications on legal language. The examples of variants were extracted from term bases and legal corpora.

1.Clarifying key concepts

Variation, synonymy and polysemy

Drawing on a definition of a term in the ISO terminology standards (ISO 1087 2019ISO 1087 2019Terminology work and terminology science – Vocabulary. Geneva: International Standardization Organization.Google Scholar, 3, 7), a legal term can be defined as a designation – a linguistic expression – which represents a concept, that is a unit of knowledge, in the legal domain. In the ideal world, a concept is evoked by one term only, that is there is a one-to-one relation of form and meaning, known as univocity or monoreferentiality. When two or more terms designate the same legal concept (many-to-one relation), this phenomenon is traditionally known as synonymy,11.It is also known as lexical synonymy as distinguished from the propositional synonymy of syntactic units (Chromá 2011Chromá, Marta 2011 “Synonymy and Polysemy in Legal Terminology and Their Applications to Bilingual and Bijural Translation.” Research in Language 9(1):31–50. DOI logoGoogle Scholar, 39). defined in the key terminological ISO 1087 standard as a “relation between designations in a given natural language representing the same concept” (ISO 1087 2019ISO 1087 2019Terminology work and terminology science – Vocabulary. Geneva: International Standardization Organization.Google Scholar, 11). For example, the terms toll and road fee can evoke the same concept in EU (European Union) law.22.This can be seen in a definition of toll in Article 2(21) of Directive (EU) 2019/520 of the European Parliament and of the Council of 19 March 2019 on the interoperability of electronic road toll systems and facilitating cross-border exchange of information on the failure to pay road fees in the Union OJ L 91, 29.3.2019, where both terms are listed as variants assigned to the same definition (concept): “‘toll’ or ‘road fee’ means the fee which must be paid by the road user for circulating on a given road, a road network, a structure, such as a bridge or a tunnel, or a ferry”. Synonymy is distinguished from another frequent linguistic phenomenon – polysemy when a term represents more than one concept (de Bessé, Nkwenti-Azeh, and Sager 1997de Bessé, Bruno, Blaise Nkwenti-Azeh, and Juan C. Sager 1997 “Glossary of terms used in terminology.” Terminology. International Journal of Theoretical and Applied Issues in Specialized Communication 4(1):117–156. DOI logoGoogle Scholar, 145), that is a one-to-many relation, defined as “relation in which a designation represents two or more concepts” (ISO 1087 2019ISO 1087 2019Terminology work and terminology science – Vocabulary. Geneva: International Standardization Organization.Google Scholar, 11). For example, the term start of works can mean “the start of construction works on the investment (…)” or, in the case of take-overs, “the moment of acquiring the assets directly linked to the acquired establishment”, as they are both defined in the same EU legal act.33.Article 2(23) of Commission Regulation (EU) No 651/2014 of 17 June 2014 declaring certain categories of aid compatible with the internal market in application of Articles 107 and 108 of the Treaty OJ L 187 26.6.2014, p. 1.

The term ‘synonymy’ has developed a more specialized meaning in the field of Terminology, which now prefers to use ‘variation’ and ‘variant’ as superordinate terms. Traditionally, a distinction was made between synonyms, defined in the Glossary of terms used in terminology, published in the authoritative Terminology journal, as “[a] word or term which has the same denotation or the same sense as another” and variants, understood as “a term with an alternative spelling from its headword” […] and “reduced or expanded forms of terms” (de Bessé, Nkwenti-Azeh, and Sager 1997de Bessé, Bruno, Blaise Nkwenti-Azeh, and Juan C. Sager 1997 “Glossary of terms used in terminology.” Terminology. International Journal of Theoretical and Applied Issues in Specialized Communication 4(1):117–156. DOI logoGoogle Scholar, 151, 155). Synonyms were further distinguished as follows: terms are regarded as synonyms if they are interchangeable in all contexts and as quasi-synonyms if they designate concepts with “almost identical” characteristics (= intensions) and are interchangeable in some contexts only (ISO 704 2009ISO 704 2009Terminology work – Principles and methods. Geneva: International Organization for Standardization.Google Scholar, 35). In more recent approaches to variation (Daille 2017 2017Term Variation in Specialised Corpora: Characterisation, automatic discovery and applications. Amsterdam: John Benjamins. DOI logoGoogle Scholar; Fernández-Silva 2016Fernández-Silva, Sabela 2016 “The cognitive and rhetorical role of term variation and its contribution to knowledge construction in research articles.” Terminology. International Journal of Theoretical and Applied Issues in Specialized Communication 22(1):52–79. DOI logoGoogle Scholar; Freixa 2006Freixa, Judit 2006 “Causes of denominative variation in terminology: A typology proposal.” Terminology. International Journal of Theoretical and Applied Issues in Specialized Communication 12(1):51–77. DOI logoGoogle Scholar), a variant is understood more broadly as a superordinate concept which covers not only conceptual sameness but also similarity, with one of the frequently cited definitions being “a variant of a term is an utterance which is semantically and conceptually related to an original term” (Daille et al. 1996Daille, Béatrice, Benoît Habert, Christian Jacquemin, and Jean Royauté 1996 “Empirical observation of term variations and principles for their description.” Terminology. International Journal of Theoretical and Applied Issues in Specialized Communication 3(2):197–257. DOI logoGoogle Scholar, 201). Thus, a variant comprises both the then variation and synonymy – now mainly denominative variants, as well as a more distant quasi-synonymy – now conceptual variants. As can be seen, even the terminology concerning variation is subject to variation.

2.The many faces of variation

Types of legal terminological variants

Variation can be classified according to a range of criteria, depending on objectives and applications. They include: formal and conceptual distance, time, acceptability and distribution. Having adapted these criteria to legal terminology, I propose the most relevant types of legal terminological variants in Table 1.

Table 1.Types of legal terminological variants
Criterion Variant type
Formal and conceptual distance to the base term

Linguistic variant

Denominative variant

Conceptual variant

Time

Synchronic variant

Diachronic variant

Acceptability

Preferred variant

Permitted variant

Deprecated variant

Proposed variant

Distribution

Intrasystemic variant: intratextual, intertextual

Intersystemic variant

Hybrid variant in multilingual settings

2.1Conceptual distance between variants

The main distinction which is currently maintained in Terminology is based on: whether variation affects only the form, i.e., it refers to the same concept, or whether it affects the content, i.e., it refers to a different albeit closely related concept (Daille 2017 2017Term Variation in Specialised Corpora: Characterisation, automatic discovery and applications. Amsterdam: John Benjamins. DOI logoGoogle Scholar, 35). The former is most frequently known as denominative variation while the latter – conceptual variation.

There is some terminological confusion concerning denominative variation. Some scholars understand it to cover all variants which denote the same concept, e.g. Freixa (2006)Freixa, Judit 2006 “Causes of denominative variation in terminology: A typology proposal.” Terminology. International Journal of Theoretical and Applied Issues in Specialized Communication 12(1):51–77. DOI logoGoogle Scholar, while others make a finer distinction between linguistic variants and denominative variants (Daille 2017 2017Term Variation in Specialised Corpora: Characterisation, automatic discovery and applications. Amsterdam: John Benjamins. DOI logoGoogle Scholar, 35), applying denominative variants only to terms with different lexicalized forms. I will follow the latter approach since the ease of variant identification is essential in legal language.

Linguistic variants

Linguistic variants (Daille 2017 2017Term Variation in Specialised Corpora: Characterisation, automatic discovery and applications. Amsterdam: John Benjamins. DOI logoGoogle Scholar, 35), also known in some studies as formal variants (e.g. Fernández-Silva 2016Fernández-Silva, Sabela 2016 “The cognitive and rhetorical role of term variation and its contribution to knowledge construction in research articles.” Terminology. International Journal of Theoretical and Applied Issues in Specialized Communication 22(1):52–79. DOI logoGoogle Scholar, 63), have a different form “below the lexical level” (Fernández-Silva 2016Fernández-Silva, Sabela 2016 “The cognitive and rhetorical role of term variation and its contribution to knowledge construction in research articles.” Terminology. International Journal of Theoretical and Applied Issues in Specialized Communication 22(1):52–79. DOI logoGoogle Scholar, 63). These variants use very similar forms (lexemes) with minor modifications. Due to this similarity of form, they are easy to identify as variants. There are a few categorizations of linguistic variants, which to some degree depend on the properties of the languages studied. Drawing on Dubuc (1997, qtd. in Bowker and Hawkins (2006Bowker, Lynne and Shane Hawkins 2006 “Variation in the organization of medical terms: Exploring some motivations for term choice.” Terminology. International Journal of Theoretical and Applied Issues in Specialized Communication 12(1):79–110. DOI logoGoogle Scholar, 81)), Daille (2005)Daille, Béatrice 2005 “Variations and application-oriented terminology engineering.” Terminology. International Journal of Theoretical and Applied Issues in Specialized Communication 11(1):181–197. DOI logoGoogle Scholar and Daille (2017) 2017Term Variation in Specialised Corpora: Characterisation, automatic discovery and applications. Amsterdam: John Benjamins. DOI logoGoogle Scholar, I propose to synthesize these categories for the purposes of legal terms into: (1) orthographic variants, (2) morphosyntactic variants, and (3) abbreviated/extended forms (see Table 2), with a proviso that some languages might require finer distinctions. Categories are illustrated with examples sourced in the EU’s IATE (Interactive Terminology for Europe) term base44. https://​iate​.europa​.eu; variants identified in IATE are documented with IATE IDs in brackets. or EU law.55.Variants identified in Biel, Biernacka, and Jopek-Bosiacka (2018)Biel, Łucja, Agnieszka Biernacka, and Anna Jopek-Bosiacka 2018 “Collocations of Terms in EU Competition Law: A Corpus Analysis of EU English Collocations.” In Language and Law: The Role of Language and Translation in EU Competition Law, edited by Silvia Marino, Łucja Biel, Martina Bajčić and Vilelmini Sosoni, 249–274. Cham: Springer International Publishing. DOI logoGoogle Scholar and confirmed in the Juremy (juremy.com) search engine.

Table 2.Types of linguistic variants
Linguistic variation Examples
Orthographic variants

case law / case-law (IATE ID 772653)

trade mark (IATE ID 851415) / trademark (IATE ID 1253839)

wholly-owned subsidiary (IATE ID 1754985) / wholly owned subsidiary (IATE ID 1390653)

micro-enterprise / microenterprise (IATE ID 1873332)

penalise / penalize

failure to fulfil/fulfill the undertaking

Morphosyntactic variants

Morphological variants

statutory law / statute law (IATE ID 886050)

unmargined derivative / non-margined derivative (IATE ID 3572228)

Inflection

passing-on / pass-on of overcharges

buying cartel / buyers’ cartel

law of tort / law of torts (IATE ID 1129834)

Syntactic variants, e.g. permutation

contract of employment / employment contract (IATE ID 760910)

financial derivative instrument / derivative financial instrument (IATE ID 856223)

asylum application / application for asylum (IATE ID 3583972)

Mixed syntactic and morphological variants

vaccine confidence / confidence in vaccination (IATE ID 3593277)

legal heir / heir at law / heir by operation of law (IATE ID 3537946)

misconduct in office / official misconduct (IATE ID 3556579)

closed corporation / closely-held corporation (IATE ID 81148)

contractual freedom / freedom of contract (IATE ID 1395335)

Abbreviated and extended forms

Abbreviated forms and short forms:

financial derivative instrument / derivative instrument / derivative (IATE ID 856223)

post-authorisation safety study / post-authorisation study (IATE ID 2251252)

European Union acquis / Union acquis / acquis (IATE ID 878385)

Regulation (EU) No 575/2013 of the European Parliament and of the Council of 26 June 2013 on prudential requirements for credit institutions and investment firms and amending Regulation (EU) No 648/2012 / Capital Requirements Regulation / CRR (IATE ID 3547679)

clipped forms:

middle-capitalisation company / mid-cap company / mid-cap (IATE ID 931591)

abbreviations:

  • initialisms:

    European Parliament / EP (IATE ID 126540)

    intellectual property / IP (IATE ID 775594)

    alternative dispute resolution / ADR (IATE ID 917735)

    non-governmental organisation / NGO (IATE ID 787724)

  • acronyms:

    United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization / UNESCO (IATE ID 791338)

    European Free Trade Association / EFTA (IATE ID 778794)

  • other:

    declared maximum power / Pmax (IATE ID 2242949)

    mu receptor / μ-receptor (IATE ID 202505)

Extended forms

estate tail / estate in tail / fee tail estate / estate in fee tail (IATE ID 68289)

wear / wear and tear (IATE ID 1209118) / normal wear and tear (IATE ID 843269) / usual wear and tear (IATE ID 1647561)

Both orthographic and morphosyntactic variants involve typically minor modifications of the form of terms while maintaining the same lexemes (or their lemmas). In general, the longer the term, the more variation it invites. Orthographic variants (also known as spelling variants) involve a segmentation of compound terms, e.g. hyphenation or spacing, as well as spelling variants related to, for example, capitalization, normative spelling, misspelling (Daille 2017 2017Term Variation in Specialised Corpora: Characterisation, automatic discovery and applications. Amsterdam: John Benjamins. DOI logoGoogle Scholar, 52–53). Morphosyntactic variation comprises morphological variants with different morphemes in constituents, syntactic variants with differences in an internal structure of terms, for example permutation which reverses the order of constituents but preserves their dependency relationship, and mixed variants which combine changes in both morphemes and the local grammar of a term (Daille 2005Daille, Béatrice 2005 “Variations and application-oriented terminology engineering.” Terminology. International Journal of Theoretical and Applied Issues in Specialized Communication 11(1):181–197. DOI logoGoogle Scholar, 184–185). It is not infrequent that one variant, known as the base term (Daille et al. 1996Daille, Béatrice, Benoît Habert, Christian Jacquemin, and Jean Royauté 1996 “Empirical observation of term variations and principles for their description.” Terminology. International Journal of Theoretical and Applied Issues in Specialized Communication 3(2):197–257. DOI logoGoogle Scholar, 205), is dominant while other variants have a significantly lower frequency. For example, a study by Biel et al. (2018)Biel, Łucja, Agnieszka Biernacka, and Anna Jopek-Bosiacka 2018 “Collocations of Terms in EU Competition Law: A Corpus Analysis of EU English Collocations.” In Language and Law: The Role of Language and Translation in EU Competition Law, edited by Silvia Marino, Łucja Biel, Martina Bajčić and Vilelmini Sosoni, 249–274. Cham: Springer International Publishing. DOI logoGoogle Scholar identified the base form trade mark with a frequency of 350 occurrences, while the other variant, e.g. trademark, only 23 times in the EU competition law corpus. See also Prieto Ramos (this volume) for similar evidence.

Abbreviated forms (termed after ISO 704 2009ISO 704 2009Terminology work – Principles and methods. Geneva: International Organization for Standardization.Google Scholar, 52–53) cover short forms, clipped forms and abbreviations. They are mainly motivated by the principle of linguistic economy (ISO 704 2009ISO 704 2009Terminology work – Principles and methods. Geneva: International Organization for Standardization.Google Scholar, 40) to ensure the ease and efficiency of use by introducing shorter forms, in particular when a term has a (excessively) long multi-word form and is impracticable to use. Abbreviations, especially initialisms, seem to be a productive category in institutional discourse, when referring to proper names, such as institutions, programmes, administrative measures, legal acts as well as technical terms used in legislation. Abbreviations are often signalled as a variant in a text, e.g. ‘harmonised index of consumer prices’ or ‘HICP’ means the comparable index of consumer prices produced by each Member State66.Regulation (EU) 2016/792 of the European Parliament and of the Council of 11 May 2016 on harmonised indices of consumer prices and the house price index, and repealing Council Regulation (EC) No 2494/95. OJ L 135, 24.5.2016, p. 11–38. (emphasis added).

The opposite – extended forms (also known as expansions (Daille 2017 2017Term Variation in Specialised Corpora: Characterisation, automatic discovery and applications. Amsterdam: John Benjamins. DOI logoGoogle Scholar)) – explicate and foreground certain aspects of a concept which may otherwise be implicit, e.g. normal wear and tear as opposed to wear and tear, although ‘normal’ is part of the meaning of wear and tear as can be seen in its IATE entry (ID 1209118) based on a Wikipedia definition: “damage that naturally and inevitably occurs as a result of normal wear or aging” (emphasis added). This is also visible in the BLD [Black’s Law Dictionary] definition of wear and tear: “[d]eterioration caused by ordinary use; the depreciation of property resulting from its reasonable use” (Garner 2009 ed. 2009Black’s Law Dictionary. 9th ed. St. Paul, MN: West.Google Scholar, 1731; emphasis added). Given a broad range of variants this term triggers, as evidenced in legal dictionaries, e.g. usual wear and tear, fair wear and tear, reasonable wear and tear and natural wear and tear, there is a clear communicative need to emphasize this aspect of the concept and to make it more semantically transparent.

Denominative variants

Denominative variation, also known as synonymy, terminological synonymy, lexical variation sensu stricto (Freixa and Fernández-Silva 2017Freixa, Judit and Sabela Fernández-Silva 2017 “Terminological variation and the unsaturability of concepts.” In Multiple Perspectives on Terminological Variation, edited by Patrick Drouin, Aline Francœur, John Humbley and Aurélie Picton, 155–180. Amsterdam: John Benjamins. DOI logoGoogle Scholar), occurs when one concept has more than one denomination – lexicalized form (Freixa 2006Freixa, Judit 2006 “Causes of denominative variation in terminology: A typology proposal.” Terminology. International Journal of Theoretical and Applied Issues in Specialized Communication 12(1):51–77. DOI logoGoogle Scholar, 51). Due to the dissimilarity of form, this type of variation is usually more difficult to identify. Denominative variation can be partial when only one constituent differs and full when all the constituents are substituted by synonyms. Take for example maritime law which has partial variants: marine law and law of the sea (IATE ID 1593245). An example of a full variant is ex officio and as of right, both of which are defined as “holding one office by virtue of or because of the holding of another office” (IATE ID 792874). A term may have both partial and full variants – action for damages has a few partial variants: action for compensation, action for pecuniary reparation (IATE ID 1086966), claim for damages (IATE ID 1129967), and the full variant claim for compensation (IATE ID 1129967). Denominative variation is also found in the verb collocations of legal terms, e.g. to grant / award an aid; to conclude / enter into an agreement; to form / establish a cartel in EU competition law (Biel, Biernacka, and Jopek-Bosiacka 2018Biel, Łucja, Agnieszka Biernacka, and Anna Jopek-Bosiacka 2018 “Collocations of Terms in EU Competition Law: A Corpus Analysis of EU English Collocations.” In Language and Law: The Role of Language and Translation in EU Competition Law, edited by Silvia Marino, Łucja Biel, Martina Bajčić and Vilelmini Sosoni, 249–274. Cham: Springer International Publishing. DOI logoGoogle Scholar, 269).

A concept may trigger a range of both linguistic and denominative variants. For example, contract of employment can trigger a linguistic variant based on permutation employment contract and a range of partial denominative variants: work contract, labour contract (IATE ID 760910) and service contract. Similarly, trafficking has extended variants illicit/illegal trafficking and denominative variants illicit trade and illegal trade as shown in Chart 1. The IATE entry treats all the variants as referring to the same concept although one could argue that variants with illicit foreground other aspects of the concept (i.e. impropriety)77.“illicit, adj.” = not authorized or allowed; improper, irregular; esp. not sanctioned by law, rule, or custom; unlawful, forbidden. OED Online, Oxford University Press, March 2022, www​.oed​.com​/view​/Entry​/91445. Accessed 22 March 2022. than those with illegal (forbidden by law).

Chart 1.IATE entry on trafficking
Chart 1.

Conceptual variants

The last group of variants comprises conceptual variants. They refer to related concepts, the characteristics of which overlap to some degree. Thus, these are not identical concepts and conceptual variants have a larger distance to the base term. A typical example of conceptual variation is a hypernym (superordinate) – hyponym (subordinate) relation between concepts, e.g. agreement – tenancy agreement – assured shorthold tenancy agreement, where the former is the most general category which subsumes the latter – its subtypes. Most concepts have this type of generic-specific relationship with other concepts. Conceptual variants may also involve partial overlaps in the characteristics of concepts. For example, related company, affiliated company, associated company, subsidiary company are closely related variants which denote different levels of ownership and control held by a parent company. These variants involve a change of modifier with a different defining feature and hence involve a medium distance (Fernández-Silva 2016Fernández-Silva, Sabela 2016 “The cognitive and rhetorical role of term variation and its contribution to knowledge construction in research articles.” Terminology. International Journal of Theoretical and Applied Issues in Specialized Communication 22(1):52–79. DOI logoGoogle Scholar, 64). Changes in the head involve a change of category and usually involve a maximum distance (Fernández-Silva 2016Fernández-Silva, Sabela 2016 “The cognitive and rhetorical role of term variation and its contribution to knowledge construction in research articles.” Terminology. International Journal of Theoretical and Applied Issues in Specialized Communication 22(1):52–79. DOI logoGoogle Scholar, 64). For example, the US variants corporation, company, partnership denote distinct types of business entities which differ in the limitation of liability, taxation and regulatory duties. Interestingly, this concept field is often represented by a single concept, e.g. Gesellschaft (DE), société (FR), spółka (PL), in continental (European) company law.

The distinction between conceptual and denominative variants is not always clear-cut (Daille 2017 2017Term Variation in Specialised Corpora: Characterisation, automatic discovery and applications. Amsterdam: John Benjamins. DOI logoGoogle Scholar, 64), especially in the legal domain. The distance to the base term is a matter of degree: for example, concepts may differ as to peripheral or central characteristics and users – legal experts – may differ in their assessment as to whether variants refer to the same concept or to different concepts. The denominative/conceptual variation resembles the distinction between full (also known as strict, absolute, complete) synonyms and partial (also known as near, close) synonyms in linguistics (see Chromá 2011Chromá, Marta 2011 “Synonymy and Polysemy in Legal Terminology and Their Applications to Bilingual and Bijural Translation.” Research in Language 9(1):31–50. DOI logoGoogle Scholar, 40–42, Goźdź-Roszkowski 2013Goźdź-Roszkowski, Stanisław 2013 “Exploring near-synonymous terms in legal language. A corpus-based, phraseological perspective.” Linguistica Antverpiensia, New Series – Themes in Translation Studies 12:94–109.Google Scholar, 96–97 for an overview) – in Chromá’s words, this distinction reflects a “fluctuating degree of sameness/similarity” (2011Chromá, Marta 2011 “Synonymy and Polysemy in Legal Terminology and Their Applications to Bilingual and Bijural Translation.” Research in Language 9(1):31–50. DOI logoGoogle Scholar, 41). As linguistic research shows, full synonymy is rare in language and variants are usually distributed in different contexts (see Section 3). Full synonymy, where variants are fully interchangeable in all contexts, is “exceptional” in legal language (Chromá 2011Chromá, Marta 2011 “Synonymy and Polysemy in Legal Terminology and Their Applications to Bilingual and Bijural Translation.” Research in Language 9(1):31–50. DOI logoGoogle Scholar, 41). Thus, instead, some semasiologically- and/or linguistically-oriented terminological studies classify variants along a cline from a minimum to maximum semantic distance, with denominative variants involving the former and conceptual variants – the latter (Fernández-Silva 2016Fernández-Silva, Sabela 2016 “The cognitive and rhetorical role of term variation and its contribution to knowledge construction in research articles.” Terminology. International Journal of Theoretical and Applied Issues in Specialized Communication 22(1):52–79. DOI logoGoogle Scholar, 63). In this approach, even if denominative variants evoke the same concept, their meaning may slightly differ due to the profiling of different aspects of the concept (hence the minimum distance).

2.2Time

Diachronic and synchronic variants

Considering the criterion of time, variants can be synchronic or diachronic (also termed as chronological variants, Freixa 2006Freixa, Judit 2006 “Causes of denominative variation in terminology: A typology proposal.” Terminology. International Journal of Theoretical and Applied Issues in Specialized Communication 12(1):51–77. DOI logoGoogle Scholar, 55). As all types of terminology, legal terminology is dynamic and subject to change over time. Synchronic variants co-exist in time; for example, corporation and company are contemporary US and UK synchronic variants. Synchronic variants are frequent in new emerging domains where terminology is under formation and hence unstable. One such area is fintech terminology – for example the term blockchain is also spelt as block-chain, block chain and Block Chain in a number of legal and administrative documents in EUR-Lex.

Diachronic variants were used in the past; thus, they usually do not compete with newer variants. To illustrate, the common law offence of larceny is a diachronic variant replaced by a broader umbrella concept of theft and related offences in the 1968 Theft Act in the United Kingdom. The term larceny is still used in some jurisdictions, for example Australia, the USA or the Bailiwick of Jersey, in the original meaning of theft of personal property with an asportation (i.e. carrying the item away), in an extended sense or interchangeably with theft. Thus, diachronic variants in one jurisdiction may be synchronic variants in related jurisdictions. Additionally, diachronic variants may still be occasionally and habitually used in looser language and less official contexts but they are not ‘authoritative’ terms. More recently, diachronic variation may be attributed to the Plain Language Movement, which aims at modernising and simplifying legal language (Adler 2012Adler, Mark 2012 “The Plain Language Movement.” In The Oxford Handbook of Language and Law, edited by L. M. Solan and P. M. Tiersma. Oxford: Oxford Handbooks Online. DOI logoGoogle Scholar). For example, the Civil Procedure Rules 1998 which were introduced in 1999 in England and Wales reformed some fundamental procedural terminology by replacing long-standing archaic or opaque terms with their plain(er) language variants intended to make them more comprehensible to the general public, e.g. plaintiff → claimant, writ → claim form, pleading → statement of case, minor/infant → child, subpoena → witness summons, guardian ad litem → litigation friend, ex parte → without notice, Anton Pillar order → search order (Galdia 2009Galdia, Marcus 2009Legal Linguistics. Frankfurt am Main: Peter Lang.Google Scholar, 128). While the previous terms might still be in use in some contexts, they are diachronic variants in England and Wales from a legal point of view. Diachronic variants are sometimes marked in term bases, e.g. as ‘obsolete’ in IATE (see Section 2.3).

2.3Acceptability of variants

Variants may be categorized according to their acceptability ratings. They may be listed “in order of preference” in a terminology resource as a guide to users with the help of labels, such as preferred, admitted, deprecated and obsolete terms (ISO 1087 2019ISO 1087 2019Terminology work and terminology science – Vocabulary. Geneva: International Standardization Organization.Google Scholar, 9–10). An example of this categorization may be found in the IATE term base, which adds one more label – proposed – to evaluate variants and explains the labels as follows:

Preferred The best term (of its ‘term type’) to use in an EU text. A term may be ‘preferred’ because it is intrinsically better than the other terms, or because it has been chosen to ensure consistency in EU texts.

Admitted A term which is correct, but for which better synonyms exist.

Deprecated A term which is widely used, and is therefore likely to appear in EU documents or which appears in an apparently authoritative source, but which should be used neither in originals nor in translations because it is not correct and fit for use in EU texts.

Obsolete A term which was previously used to denote the concept, but is no longer in use (e.g. the ‘Bank Identifier Code’ is now called the ‘Business Identifier Code’, see IATE:926311).

Proposed A term or denomination which has been proposed but not yet fully adopted.88.IATE User’s Handbook (version 30.6.2020), p. 25, https://​iate​.europa​.eu​/assets​/IATE​_Handbook​_public​.pdf.

Taking into account acceptability, this scale could actually be reduced to four categories – preferred, admitted, deprecated, proposed – since ‘obsolete’ could be regarded as a subtype of deprecated variants, the use of which is not recommended. An example of how the labels are used in IATE is shown in Chart 2, where Polish equivalents of climate change are marked as preferred, admitted and deprecated.

Chart 2.IATE entry on climate change
Chart 2.

These labels help to standardize drafters’ and, more frequently, translators’ choices among variants.

3.Distribution of variants

Distributional distance

The distribution criterion reflects the physical textual distance in which variants appear and, hence, how they compete with each other. The distribution of legal variants takes into account the type of legal system since it provides the conceptual frames of reference and meaning construal. Thus, a key distinction should be made between variants which are distributed (1) in the same legal system – intrasystemic variants, (2) in different legal systems – intersystemic variants, and (3) in multilingual context – hybrid variants (see Table 1).

3.1Intrasystemic variants

Intrasystemic variants function in the same legal system. They can occur in the same text (intratextual variants) or across different texts (intertextual variants).

3.1.1Intratextual intrasystemic variants

Variants at the phrase level
Synonym-strings

Phrase-level variants which consist in synonymous repetitions, such as sole and exclusive; right, title and interest; indemnify and hold harmless, are frequently discussed in the literature and are known under a range of names – doublets, triplets, synonym-strings (Garner 2001Garner, Bryan A. 2001A Dictionary of Modern Legal Usage. 2nd ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar, 292), coupled synonyms (Šarčević 1997Šarčević, Susan 1997New Approach to Legal Translation. The Hague: Kluwer Law International.Google Scholar, 183), synonymical chains (Chromá 2011Chromá, Marta 2011 “Synonymy and Polysemy in Legal Terminology and Their Applications to Bilingual and Bijural Translation.” Research in Language 9(1):31–50. DOI logoGoogle Scholar, 42), etc. They are a distinctive feature of common-law legal English (see e.g. Alcaraz Varó and Hughes 2002Alcaraz Varó, Enrique and Brian Hughes 2002Legal Translation Explained. Manchester: St. Jerome.Google Scholar, 9; Mattila 2006Mattila, H. E. S. 2006Comparative Legal Linguistics. Hampshire: Ashgate.Google Scholar, 111–112; Mellinkoff 1963Mellinkoff, David 1963The Language of the Law. Boston: Little, Brown & Co.Google Scholar, 120). Synonym-strings are multi-word expressions which comprise two or more synonymous variants of constituent terms. They usually have different etymology, are joined mainly with the coordinator ‘and’ (hence regarded as a subtype of binomials, Gustafsson 1984Gustafsson, Marita 1984 “The syntactic features of binomial expressions in legal English.” Text – Interdisciplinary Journal for the Study of Discourse 4(1–3):123–142. DOI logoGoogle Scholar) and are retrieved as a whole, that is they are treated as a single term evoking one concept. Synonym-strings are historical artefacts resulting from code-mixing in the Middle Ages and Renaissance when bilingual synonyms were composed first for clarity “as necessary translation” of a foreign French or Latin term, and later as a then fashionable rhetorical device – a rhythmic “ornament” “sometimes spiced with alliteration” (Garner 2001Garner, Bryan A. 2001A Dictionary of Modern Legal Usage. 2nd ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar, 292–293; Mellinkoff 1963Mellinkoff, David 1963The Language of the Law. Boston: Little, Brown & Co.Google Scholar, 120–121). For example, English and French combinations include goods and chattels; acknowledge and confess; fit and proper; give, devise and bequeath while English and Latin combinations include: will and testament, act and deed, French and Latin combinations being: aid and abet, null and void, cease and desist; rest, residue and remainder (Mellinkoff 1963Mellinkoff, David 1963The Language of the Law. Boston: Little, Brown & Co.Google Scholar, 121–122). The rhythmicity of synonym-strings made them ritualistic and solemn and added to the “dignity of legal language” (Mattila 2006Mattila, H. E. S. 2006Comparative Legal Linguistics. Hampshire: Ashgate.Google Scholar, 234). They are still used routinely as a coupling of synonyms or hypernyms (referring to superordinate concepts) and hyponyms (referring to subordinate concepts). The latter can be illustrated with the doublet terms and conditions, regarded as one of “the most common redundancies in legal drafting” with terms being broad enough to cover both (Garner 2001Garner, Bryan A. 2001A Dictionary of Modern Legal Usage. 2nd ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar, 872). For example, Jowitt’s Dictionary of English Law defines terms as:

Terms. A reference to a term of a contract or other agreement is a reference to a distinct provision or part. The phrase “terms and conditions” is found throughout the statute book, despite the fact that a condition is merely a particular kind of term.(Greenberg 2010Greenberg, Daniel ed. 2010Jowitt’s Dictionary of English Law. 3rd ed. London: Thomson Reuters.Google Scholar, 2244, emphasis added)

Thus, a term is a hypernym covering a condition. It is a particular kind of term: “a major term”, the breach of which is “a fundamental breach of the contract and entitles the injured party to treat it as discharged”, or a condition precedent or subsequent (Law and Martin 2009Law, Jonathan and Elizabeth A. Martin eds. 2009A Dictionary of Law. 7th ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press. DOI logoGoogle Scholar, 118). Since conditions are subsumed by terms, terms and conditions are redundant but are entrenched in usage.

In addition to highly-fixed formulaic synonym-strings which evoke single concepts, phrase-level variants may be associated with an all-embracing drafting style where all possible conceptual and denominative variants are enumerated side by side in “improvised strings” (Adams 2013Adams, Kenneth A. 2013A Manual of Style for Contract Drafting. 3rd ed. Chicago: American Bar Association.Google Scholar, 72), e.g.

No party hereto shall be deemed as a consequence of any act, delay, failure, omission, forbearance or other indulgences granted from time to time by any other party hereto […] to have modified, changed, amended, terminated, rescinded, or superseded any of the terms of this Agreement, unless such waiver, modification, amendment, change, termination, rescission, or supersession is express, in writing and signed by the party […]

where the underlined strings reflect an attempt to exhaustively cover concept fields of ‘act’ and ‘change’.

Synonym-strings may trigger additional linguistic variation with attempts at the reduction of redundancy: terms and conditions and the elliptical forms terms and/or (rare) conditions as well as last will and testament which coexists with will.

Variants beyond the phrase level

Intratextual variants are found in the same legal text. As research shows, the dispersion of variants and their frequency of use is dependent on the level of specialization of genres and registers, sometimes referred to as vertical variation or register-dependent variation: “terminological density and consistency decrease as texts become less specialized, while conceptual and denominative variation becomes more frequent” (Fernández-Silva 2016Fernández-Silva, Sabela 2016 “The cognitive and rhetorical role of term variation and its contribution to knowledge construction in research articles.” Terminology. International Journal of Theoretical and Applied Issues in Specialized Communication 22(1):52–79. DOI logoGoogle Scholar, 57–58).

Legal genres are typically grouped into a hierarchical system of genres. One such classification by Bhatia (2006Bhatia, Vijay K. 2006 “Legal Genres.” In Encyclopedia of Language and Linguistics, edited by Keith Brown, 1–7. Oxford: Elsevier. DOI logoGoogle Scholar, 6–7) divides legal genres into primary genres (legal acts) and derived genres which cover secondary genres of adjudication, target genres used in legal practice (contracts, court case documents), and enabling (pedagogical) genres produced by academics and legal professionals. These core legal genres need to be supplemented by peripheral genres, such as administrative documents (certificates), press releases, oral genres, entertaining genres (crime fiction, TV series), web and social media genres (websites), which are often intended for semi-experts and non-specialist recipients (Biel 2022 2022 “Translating Legal Texts.” In The Cambridge Handbook of Translation, edited by Kirsten Malmkjær, 379–400. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. DOI logoGoogle Scholar). Intratextual variation – in particular linguistic and denominative variation – can be expected to be minimized in legislation and target genres, where it would violate the consistency principle (see Section 4). Secondary genres, such as judgments, are more interpretive and contextualized, which allows for stylistic and cohesive variation (Biel and Koźbiał 2020Biel, Łucja and Dariusz Koźbiał 2020 “How do translators handle (near-) synonymous legal terms? A mixed-genre parallel corpus study into the variation of EU English-Polish competition law terminology.” Estudios de Traducción 10:69–90. DOI logoGoogle Scholar). This can also be extended to enabling genres with pedagogical functions. As less specialized, peripheral genres may be expected to show the highest degree of intratextual variation.

Intratextual variation may also be found in interdiscursive documents. For example, enacting parts of EU legal acts are preceded by extensive preambles which present the rationale for a given legal act, political considerations and legislative intent and are nonprescriptive as opposed to enacting parts. Preambles tend to be written in a more argumentative style and use terms less rigorously. Thus, variants may be scattered across preambles and enacting parts, for example linguistic variants: action for damages / damages action, buyers’ cartel and buying cartel, passing-on / pass-on of overcharges in Directive 2014/104/EU,99.Directive 2014/104/EU of the European Parliament and of the Council of 26 November 2014 on certain rules governing actions for damages under national law for infringements of the competition law provisions of the Member States and of the European Union Text with EEA relevance, OJ L 349, 5.12.2014, p. 1–19. or denominative variants: typical consumer and average consumer, out-of-court settlement alongside amicable settlement in EU consumer directives (Biel and Doczekalska 2020Biel, Łucja and Agnieszka Doczekalska 2020 “How do supranational terms transfer into national legal systems? A corpus-informed study of EU English terminology in consumer protection directives and UK, Irish and Maltese transposing acts.” Terminology. International Journal of Theoretical and Applied Issues in Specialized Communication 26(2):184–212. DOI logoGoogle Scholar). Interdiscursivity is also found in quotations, e.g. in judgments, from underlying documents, which serve as evidence – opinions, reports, statements, with their own discursive universe.

Another case of variation is related to cognitive scenarios or frames terms are associated with – such associations may result in the excluding or overlapping combinatory properties of variants. For example, the Polish Code of Commercial Partnerships and Companies establishes distinct terminology when referring to similar concepts connected with two main types of Polish companies: spółka z ograniczoną odpowiedzialnością [private limited liability company] and spółka akcyjna [public company]: the former has umowa spółki [articles of association, lit. company agreement], udziały [shares] and wspólnik [member] while the latter has statut [statute], akcje [shares – a borrowing of foreign origin] and akcjonariusz [shareholder], respectively. The corresponding UK companies have a unified terminology regardless of the company type (articles of association, shares, member). A more complex set of variants – breach, infringement, violation, contravention – and their collocations were examined by Goźdź-Roszkowski (2013)Goźdź-Roszkowski, Stanisław 2013 “Exploring near-synonymous terms in legal language. A corpus-based, phraseological perspective.” Linguistica Antverpiensia, New Series – Themes in Translation Studies 12:94–109.Google Scholar, who demonstrated exclusions but also overlaps and domain specificity in their distribution.

3.1.2Intertextual intrasystemic variants

Law is a complex system of rules and legal documents which lay down, apply and discuss these rules, have their own hierarchies and strong intertextual links both vertical (to the primary genre) and horizontal (to preceding documents of the same genre). Within the primary genre of legal acts in a national context, the constitution and codes unify concepts and have terminological primacy over lower-ranking secondary acts, such as ordinary statutes (acts of parliament) or ordinances issued by the government, which should ensure terminological consistency with the former (Bąkowski et al. 2003Bąkowski, Tomasz, Piotr Bielski, Krzysztof Kaszubowski, Marcin Kokoszczyński, Jakub Stelina, Jarosław Warylewski, and Grzegorz Wierczyński 2003Zasady techniki prawodawczej. Komentarz. Online: ABC Lex Omega.Google Scholar). This is not always the case as lower-ranking statutes tend to be of lower quality, one of the markers of which is terminological inconsistency (Malinowski 2006Malinowski, Andrzej 2006Polski język prawny. Wybrane zagadnienia. Warszawa: LexisNexis.Google Scholar, 204 with reference to Polish). With respect to the primary genre in the EU context, treaties (primary legislation) name fundamental concepts and their terminology has priority over secondary legislation terminology (i.e. regulations, directives, decisions), which is expected to be consistent with the former and with preceding legal acts of the same genre (cf. Biel 2014 2014Lost in the Eurofog. The Textual Fit of Translated Law. Frankfurt am Main: Peter Lang. DOI logoGoogle Scholar, 58), which again is not always applied rigorously. For example, Dannemann notes that EU terminology “is not exactly noted for its consistency”, exemplifying it with the consumer’s contractual partner in consumer transactions, which is referred to under a range of names in EU law: trader, professional, supplier, professional supplier with “no indication (…) in the acquis for different meanings being attached to those different terms” (2008Dannemann, Gerhard 2008 “Drafting Principles of Existing European Contract Law.” In Drafting Legislation: A Modern Approach, edited by Constantin Stefanou and Helen Xanthaki, 165–176. Aldershot: Ashgate.Google Scholar, 175).

Expectations of terminological continuity with the primary genre extend to lower-ranking legal genres, in particular target genres, since continued terms are points of access capable of activating the relevant knowledge structures and scenarios behind such terms. Continued terms provide clear reference to legal acts. Target genres are likely to be more susceptible to variation due to their more scattered, private and idiosyncratic nature which escapes (full) standardization. Moreover, target genres, e.g. contracts, are sometimes drafted by the parties themselves rather than lawyers, who may introduce semi-legal variants of legal terms proper. For example, the Polish umowa sprzedaży [sales contract], named and defined in the Civil Code, has a popular variant umowa kupna-sprzedaży [purchase-sales contract], used frequently in vehicle purchase contracts alongside less frequent umowa kupna [purchase contract], even though these terms are not used in Polish law. Chromá makes a useful distinction between: prescriptive terms which “are defined by and contained in statutes” and – in common law – “developed through case law” and descriptive terms which are marked by a “degree of contextual and linguistic specificity and used in everyday legal practice including professionalisms as a part of legal jargon” (2011Chromá, Marta 2011 “Synonymy and Polysemy in Legal Terminology and Their Applications to Bilingual and Bijural Translation.” Research in Language 9(1):31–50. DOI logoGoogle Scholar, 41). In some jurisprudence traditions terms are viewed narrowly as legal terms only if they are used in legal acts (Malinowski 2006Malinowski, Andrzej 2006Polski język prawny. Wybrane zagadnienia. Warszawa: LexisNexis.Google Scholar, 153), that is if they are prescriptive terms. As Chromá argues, prescriptive terms and their corresponding descriptive terms are not full synonyms because they are distributed differently.

Variants may be used in different branches of law in which case they are “usually statutorily prescribed”, i.e., to produce cause with reference to workers’ compensation and to procure cause (of a sale) in real-estate brokerage (Garner 2001Garner, Bryan A. 2001A Dictionary of Modern Legal Usage. 2nd ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar, 139). They may be developed by different discourse communities behind respective legal genres, e.g. a conveyance formula used to transfer an ownership: convey and warrant / grant, bargain, and sell in a warranty deed and remise, release and forever quitclaim / convey and quitclaim in a quitclaim deed (Garner 2001Garner, Bryan A. 2001A Dictionary of Modern Legal Usage. 2nd ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar, 942).

Enabling genres are more tolerant of intertextual variation. This may be illustrated with the legal academic genres, such as research papers and textbooks. One of the hotly debated topics of Comparative Law is the concept of legal transplant. It refers to a transfer of legal concepts or rules from one legal system to another (Watson 1974Watson, Alan 1974Legal Transplants: An Approach to Comparative Law. Edinburgh: Scottish Academic Press.Google Scholar) and uses a medical metaphor of organ transfer and at the same time the botanical metaphor of plant removal from one place to another. Since this term has been criticized as misleading, competing denominations were proposed, such as legal irritant, legal transfer, legal translation, cultural translation, legal transposition, migration, borrowing, standardization, legal transformation, diffusion, circulation, cross-fertilization, cross-pollination, reception, inoculation, infiltration (Örücü 2002Örücü, Esin 2002 “Law as Transposition.” International and Comparative Law Quarterly 51(2):205–223. DOI logoGoogle Scholar, 207; Perju 2012Perju, Vlad 2012 “Constitutional Transplants, Borrowing, and Migrations.” In Oxford Handbook of Comparative Constitutional Law, edited by Michel Rosenfeld and András Sajó, 1304–1327. Oxford: Oxford University Press. DOI logoGoogle Scholar, 1306; Doczekalska and Biel 2022Doczekalska, Agnieszka and Łucja Biel 2022 “Interlingual, intralingual and intersemiotic translation in law.” In Translation Beyond Translation Studies, edited by Kobus Marais, 99–118. London: Bloomsbury. DOI logoGoogle Scholar), to the point that it has been called “the battle of metaphors” (Perju 2012Perju, Vlad 2012 “Constitutional Transplants, Borrowing, and Migrations.” In Oxford Handbook of Comparative Constitutional Law, edited by Michel Rosenfeld and András Sajó, 1304–1327. Oxford: Oxford University Press. DOI logoGoogle Scholar, 1306–1307). This productivity of variants is cognitively motivated by a search for a term which optimally explains this complex legal phenomenon and highlights its most relevant aspects, in particular adaptations in the receiving legal culture (cf. Doczekalska and Biel 2022Doczekalska, Agnieszka and Łucja Biel 2022 “Interlingual, intralingual and intersemiotic translation in law.” In Translation Beyond Translation Studies, edited by Kobus Marais, 99–118. London: Bloomsbury. DOI logoGoogle Scholar).

Due to the interdisciplinary nature of law, which regulates various domains and is used by experts from other fields, drafters sometimes acknowledge the existence of habitual, commercial or alternative usage in a given domain, e.g. ‘household spin-extractor’, also known commercially as ‘spin-drier’1010.Commission Delegated Regulation (EU) No 392/2012 supplementing Directive 2010/30/EU of the European Parliament and of the Council with regard to energy labelling of household tumble driers, OJ L 123, 9.5.2012, p. 1–26. or: Shipmaster means the person on-board of the ship being in command and having the authority to take all decisions pertaining to navigation and ship management. (Synonyms: captain, skipper, boat master) (emphasis added).1111.Commission Implementing Regulation (EU) 2019/1744 of 17 September 2019 on technical specifications for electronic ship reporting in inland navigation and repealing Regulation (EU) No 164/2010, OJ L 273, 25.10.2019, p. 1–182.

Finally, variation is more common in less specialized genres, e.g. semi-legal, journalistic, business or colloquial language, where variants are adjustments to the communicative situation and participants. Take for example a legislative Polish term for a merger łączenie się [joining] as used in the Code of Commercial Partnerships and Companies and its commonly used variant fuzja in a less formal (e.g. spoken or journalistic) legal language. Variants are also developed in plain language, e.g. all other property instead of legalese rest, residue, and remainder (Garner 2001Garner, Bryan A. 2001A Dictionary of Modern Legal Usage. 2nd ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar, 765), as well as in everyday language, e.g. the Polish legal term przysposobienie [adoption], derived from a rare dated verb, has a popular general-language variant adopcja. Another area is prison slang, the counter-language of the criminal fraternity with bonding functions, which is typically marked by high variation, e.g. Mattila reports that Finnish prison slang has about 70 terms denoting a police officer (2006Mattila, H. E. S. 2006Comparative Legal Linguistics. Hampshire: Ashgate.Google Scholar, 6). English terms with the highest number of variants in IATE are colloquial names for drugs – LSD (22 variants, ID 1399915) and heroin (16 variants, ID 1399804).

Thus, from a genre and register perspective, variants are: legislative (statutory, prescriptive), legal non-legislative (descriptive), semi-legal and non-legal (general, colloquial, slang, etc.).

3.2Intersystemic variation

Intersystemic variants (known in other domains as geographical variants, Freixa 2006Freixa, Judit 2006 “Causes of denominative variation in terminology: A typology proposal.” Terminology. International Journal of Theoretical and Applied Issues in Specialized Communication 12(1):51–77. DOI logoGoogle Scholar, 55) are distributed in different legal systems; hence, they do not compete with each other. Legal concepts are autonomous and system-bound (Šarčević 1997Šarčević, Susan 1997New Approach to Legal Translation. The Hague: Kluwer Law International.Google Scholar, 232); they are a product of a specific legal system where their meaning is contextualized. Although legal systems across the world do share some concepts, their meaning is rarely identical due to the standardization and artificial fixing of meaning through definitions and case law, and different frames of reference (Biel 2014 2014Lost in the Eurofog. The Textual Fit of Translated Law. Frankfurt am Main: Peter Lang. DOI logoGoogle Scholar, 40). Furthermore, in the case of pluricentric languages, which are used in more than one legal system, for example English (e.g. England and Wales/UK, Ireland, USA, Canada), French (France, Canada, Switzerland), German (Germany, Austria), Spanish (Spain, Argentina, Uruguay), corresponding concepts may be activated by different denominations developed by respective systems. To illustrate, one of the branches with similar concepts is company law (UK) / corporate law (US) which has distinct terminology in the UK and the USA, e.g. company v corporation, general meeting v shareholders’ meeting, articles of association v articles of incorporation, promoter v incorporator, insolvency v bankruptcy, merger by a formation of a new company v consolidation. The variation of US terminology is even more complex as corporate law is regulated at the state rather than federal level but subject to recommendations in the form of model acts. Examples can be found in Monteagudo Medina’s (2019)Monteagudo Medina, Mary Ann 2019 “A corpus-based study of terminological variation in business incorporation documents from the United States and Peru.” Translation Spaces 8(1):117–143. DOI logoGoogle Scholar study into the names of incorporation documents of US corporations (articles of incorporation, certificate of incorporation, articles of organization, charter) and US limited liability companies (articles of organization, certificate of formation, certificate of organization). These are, argues Monteagudo Medina (2019Monteagudo Medina, Mary Ann 2019 “A corpus-based study of terminological variation in business incorporation documents from the United States and Peru.” Translation Spaces 8(1):117–143. DOI logoGoogle Scholar, 132), cognitive denominative variants “because each variant carries the same concept with a degree of specificity or specialization (the type of business organization)”.

3.3Hybrid multilingual settings

This Section covers special cases when variants co-exist in multilingual settings, such as the application of supranational law in national legal systems, including transposition, and various types of translation.

Multilingual law

Multilingual law will be discussed with the example of EU law, which is autonomous supranational law enacted in 24 authentic language versions and expected to be uniformly applied and interpreted in 27 EU member states. It is drafted at the supranational level in EU institutions but becomes “an integral part of the Member States’ legal systems” (Doczekalska 2018Doczekalska, Agnieszka 2018 “Legal Languages in Contact: EU Legislative Drafting and Its Consequences for Judicial Interpretation.” In Language and Law: The Role of Language and Translation in EU Competition Law, edited by Silvia Marino, Łucja Biel, Martina Bajčić and Vilelmini Sosoni, 163–178. Cham: Springer. DOI logoGoogle Scholar, 175), where it is applied (Kjær 2007Kjær, Anne Lise 2007 “Legal Translation in the European Union: A Research Field in Need of a New Approach.” In Language and the Law: International Outlooks, edited by Krzysztof Kredens and Stanisław Goźdź-Roszkowski, 69–95. Frankfurt am Main: Peter Lang.Google Scholar). Regulations have a general application, are binding in their entirety and directly applicable while directives are binding as to the objective to be achieved and are transposed, usually by way of amending the existing legislation or enacting new instruments in member states (intralingual translation). EU supranational terms are a special category of legal terms as they are required to “travel” from a supranational context to national ones where they are confronted with and co-exist with domestic law variants (Biel and Doczekalska 2020Biel, Łucja and Agnieszka Doczekalska 2020 “How do supranational terms transfer into national legal systems? A corpus-informed study of EU English terminology in consumer protection directives and UK, Irish and Maltese transposing acts.” Terminology. International Journal of Theoretical and Applied Issues in Specialized Communication 26(2):184–212. DOI logoGoogle Scholar, 185–186). This creates complex interlinks between supranational and domestic variants. For example, Polish language versions of EU regulations mainly use the term przedsiębiorstwo [undertaking] to refer to a business entity, which in Polish law usually denotes a specific type of entity, e.g. przedsiębiorstwo państwowe [state-owned enterprise], while national legislation uses przedsiębiorca [entrepreneur] in this sense (Biel and Sosoni 2019Biel, Łucja and Vilelmini Sosoni 2019 “EU legal culture and translation in the era of globalisation: the hybridisation of EU terminology on the example of competition law.” In Legal Linguistics beyond the borders: Language and Law in a World of Media, Globalisation and Social Conflicts. Relaunching the International Language and Law Association, edited by Friedemann Vogel, 208–229. Berlin: Duncker and Humblot.Google Scholar, 218). Interestingly, EU regulations also occasionally use the variant przedsiębiorca, albeit ca. 15 times less frequently. See also Brannan (this volume) on the supranational and national variants of expulsion.

Transposition

A further potential for variation is created during transposition when national drafters decide how (if at all) they will adjust EU terminology to the national concept system. This differs across countries as some opt for the copy-out technique which copies EU provisions nearly verbatim while others for elaboration – rewriting – in line with the conventions of domestic legal language and its conceptual framework (Biel and Doczekalska 2020Biel, Łucja and Agnieszka Doczekalska 2020 “How do supranational terms transfer into national legal systems? A corpus-informed study of EU English terminology in consumer protection directives and UK, Irish and Maltese transposing acts.” Terminology. International Journal of Theoretical and Applied Issues in Specialized Communication 26(2):184–212. DOI logoGoogle Scholar, 191–192). Transposition requires a transfer of supranational legal concepts into national legal systems, which can have a range of foreignising-domesticating forms both at the term and concept level, such as a verbatim import (e.g. off-premises contract), modification (guarantee → consumer guarantee, commercial guarantee), localization – substitution with a national term (code of conduct → code of practice, natural person → individual, withdrawal → cancellation) and no transfer (Biel and Doczekalska 2020Biel, Łucja and Agnieszka Doczekalska 2020 “How do supranational terms transfer into national legal systems? A corpus-informed study of EU English terminology in consumer protection directives and UK, Irish and Maltese transposing acts.” Terminology. International Journal of Theoretical and Applied Issues in Specialized Communication 26(2):184–212. DOI logoGoogle Scholar). With modifications and localizations, two variants denote the same concept at the national and supranational level, which may lead to ‘incoherence’ between EU and national concept systems (Šarčević 2012 2012 “Coping with the Challenges of Legal Translation in Harmonization.” In The Role of Legal Translation in Legal Harmonization, edited by C. J. W. Baaij, 83–107. Alphen aan den Rijn: Kluwer Law International.Google Scholar, 91). Furthermore, Pozzo (2020Pozzo, Barbara 2020 “Looking for a Consistent Terminology in European Contract Law.” Lingue Culture Mediazioni / Languages Cultures Mediation 7(1):103–126. DOI logoGoogle Scholar, 109) observes that consumer protection directives have been transposed in the national laws of many member states, such as France, Spain or Italy, outside the Civil Code, giving “rise to a series of separated conceptual systems not necessarily integrated together, or even in contrast one to the other”, and hence adversely affecting the coherence of national terminology. The situation may be further complicated if a given policy area is later regulated by the EU by regulations rather than directives since such a regulation would use the terminology from the preceding directive, possibly resulting in inconsistent terminology in the directly binding regulation and the directive-transposing instrument (Biel and Doczekalska 2020Biel, Łucja and Agnieszka Doczekalska 2020 “How do supranational terms transfer into national legal systems? A corpus-informed study of EU English terminology in consumer protection directives and UK, Irish and Maltese transposing acts.” Terminology. International Journal of Theoretical and Applied Issues in Specialized Communication 26(2):184–212. DOI logoGoogle Scholar, 207). Thus, supranational law is a rich breeding ground for variation when it is applied in domestic legal systems, partly due to the nature of translation, its underlying facilitator.

Translation

Variation is inevitable in translation due to its very nature as a decision process of choosing out of a range of possible alternatives (Levý 1967 [2000]Levý, Jiří 1967 [2000] “Translation as a decision process.” In The Translation Studies Reader, edited by Lauwrence Venuti, 148–159. London: Routledge.Google Scholar, 148). The conceptual structure of languages, including legal languages, is asymmetrical. When searching for an optimal way of approximating a source language (SL) concept, a translator chooses an equivalent depending on such criteria as the similarity of the SL and target language (TL) concepts, Skopos (purpose) of translation, recipients, genre, professional experience, approach to translation, etc. The translator may choose from a number of techniques ranging on a cline from domestication to foreignization. When the incongruity between an SL and TL concept is relatively small, a functional (natural) equivalent which designates the corresponding TL concept is acceptable (Šarčević 1997Šarčević, Susan 1997New Approach to Legal Translation. The Hague: Kluwer Law International.Google Scholar, 236) and expected. Otherwise the translator may for example use a hyponym or hyperonym, descriptive equivalent, literal equivalent or a borrowing (transcription/naturalization) (Biel 2014 2014Lost in the Eurofog. The Textual Fit of Translated Law. Frankfurt am Main: Peter Lang. DOI logoGoogle Scholar, 42–43). It is difficult (if not impossible) to control the translator’s choices in ‘outstitutional’ translation, that is outsourced translation outside institutions (Scott 2019Scott, Juliette R. 2019Legal Translation Outsourced. Oxford: Oxford University Press. DOI logoGoogle Scholar), since translators have an agency to decide which equivalent is best suited in this particular context and this decision may be different from those taken by other translators, partly due to the fragmentation of professional practice and confidential nature of legal documents. Such decisions may have varying degrees of adequacy and adjustments to the client. It might be argued that the translators’ decisions are not totally free as certain choices may be preferred or expected due to the market practice in the form of established or recognized equivalents, also known as “the linguistic precedent” (Weston 2005Weston, Martin 2005 “Characteristics and constraints of producing bilingual judgments: the example of the European Court of Human Rights.” In Jurilinguistics: between Law and Language, edited by Jean-Claude Gémar and Nicholas Nicholas Kasirer, 445–459. Brussels: Bruylant.Google Scholar, 458). For example, the Polish public company spółka akcyjna is frequently translated into English, including the national government’s materials for investors, as a joint stock company, which is obsolete in the UK and refers to a different type of entity in the US (Biel 2006Biel, Łucja 2006 “Incongruity of Company Law Terms: Categorization of Polish Business Entities and their English Equivalents.” Translation Journal 10(4), https://​translationjournal​.net​/journal​/38legal​.htm). A translator working for a UK client might however opt for a public company limited by shares, for a US client – a publicly-held corporation or in the EU contexts – a public limited liability company. Additionally, when translating into a pluricentric language, translators sometimes mix variants from different legal systems, an error which is recurrent in trainee translations. Considered as a whole, legal translations are bound to contain variants, particularly in outstitutional contexts.

Variation may be expected to be more limited in institutional translation, such as EU translation, since institutions have more resources and need to standardize terminology and control translators’ choices. Yet, as has already been stated, variation cannot be completely eliminated. There is ample evidence of variation in the institutional translation of multilingual legislation and case law, uncovered by recent parallel corpus studies, which facilitate the search for variants (Bajčić and Dobrić Basaneže 2021Bajčić, Martina and Katja Dobrić Basaneže 2021 “Considering foreignization and domestication in EU legal translation: a corpus-based study.” Perspectives 29(5):706–721. DOI logoGoogle Scholar; Biel 2014 2014Lost in the Eurofog. The Textual Fit of Translated Law. Frankfurt am Main: Peter Lang. DOI logoGoogle Scholar; Biel and Koźbiał 2020Biel, Łucja and Dariusz Koźbiał 2020 “How do translators handle (near-) synonymous legal terms? A mixed-genre parallel corpus study into the variation of EU English-Polish competition law terminology.” Estudios de Traducción 10:69–90. DOI logoGoogle Scholar; Biel, Biernacka, and Jopek-Bosiacka 2018; Guzmán and Prieto Ramos 2021Guzmán, Diego and Fernando Prieto Ramos 2021 “Assessing legal terminological variation in institutional translation: The case of national court names in the human rights monitoring procedures of the United Nations.” Translation and Translanguaging in Multilingual Contexts 7(2):224–247. DOI logoGoogle Scholar; Prieto Ramos and Guzmán 2018Prieto Ramos, Fernando and Diego Guzmán 2018 “Legal Terminology Consistency and Adequacy as Quality Indicators in Institutional Translation: A Mixed-Method Comparative Study.” In Institutional Translation for International Governance: Enhancing Quality in Multilingual Legal Communication, edited by Fernando Prieto Ramos, 81–101. London: Bloomsbury.Google Scholar; Prieto Ramos and Morales Moreno 2019Prieto Ramos, Fernando and Albert Morales Moreno 2019 “Terminological innovation and harmonization at international organizations: Can too many cooks spoil the broth?” In Legal Translation. Current Issues and Challenges in Research, Methods and Applications, edited by Ingrid Simonnæs and Marita Kristiansen, 87–110. Berlin: Frank & Timme.Google Scholar; Prieto Ramos, this volume; Vigier and Sánchez Ramos 2017Vigier, Francisco Javier and María del Mar Sánchez Ramos 2017 “Using parallel corpora to study the translation of legal system-bound terms: The case of names of English and Spanish courts.” In Computational and corpus-based phraseology, Second International Conference, Europhras 2017, London, proceedings, edited by Ruslan Mitkov, 260–273. Cham: Springer. DOI logoGoogle Scholar). For example, Prieto Ramos and Guzmán’s (2018)Prieto Ramos, Fernando and Diego Guzmán 2018 “Legal Terminology Consistency and Adequacy as Quality Indicators in Institutional Translation: A Mixed-Method Comparative Study.” In Institutional Translation for International Governance: Enhancing Quality in Multilingual Legal Communication, edited by Fernando Prieto Ramos, 81–101. London: Bloomsbury.Google Scholar and Prieto Ramos and Morales Moreno’s (2019)Prieto Ramos, Fernando and Albert Morales Moreno 2019 “Terminological innovation and harmonization at international organizations: Can too many cooks spoil the broth?” In Legal Translation. Current Issues and Challenges in Research, Methods and Applications, edited by Ingrid Simonnæs and Marita Kristiansen, 87–110. Berlin: Frank & Timme.Google Scholar comparative studies of terminological variation in translations in the EU, the United Nations (UN) and the World Trade Organization (WTO) have confirmed a considerable intra- and intertextual variation of Spanish equivalents in all institutions, with higher distribution and lower adequacy levels in EU translations.

4.Attitudes towards variation

Attitudes towards variation and its acceptability depend on a type of variant, in particular the formal/conceptual distance and the distributional distance between the variants, genre, and consequences.

4.1Variation as a violation of the consistency and continuity principles in drafting and translation

If the variation of legal terms is addressed, it tends to pertain to linguistic and denominative variation rather than conceptual variation. It is mainly discussed in the context of legislative drafting and translation.

Consistency is regarded as one of the fundamental principles of good legal drafting, alongside accuracy and clarity (Dannemann 2008Dannemann, Gerhard 2008 “Drafting Principles of Existing European Contract Law.” In Drafting Legislation: A Modern Approach, edited by Constantin Stefanou and Helen Xanthaki, 165–176. Aldershot: Ashgate.Google Scholar, 175). In a general sense, it pertains to “the logic of the act as a whole” and is also known as substantive consistency (EU 2015EU, European Union 2015Joint Practical Guide of the European Parliament, the Council and the Commission for persons involved in the drafting of European Union legislation. Luxembourg: Publications Office of the European Union.Google Scholar, 20). Terminological consistency, also known as formal consistency (EU 2015EU, European Union 2015Joint Practical Guide of the European Parliament, the Council and the Commission for persons involved in the drafting of European Union legislation. Luxembourg: Publications Office of the European Union.Google Scholar, 20), is its crucial component. Intratextual consistency is frequently recommended in legislative drafting guides of international and national institutions. For example, the Joint Practical Guide for persons involved in the drafting of European Union legislation recommends expressing identical concepts in the same terms and avoiding “the use of synonyms and different expressions to convey the same idea” (EU 2015EU, European Union 2015Joint Practical Guide of the European Parliament, the Council and the Commission for persons involved in the drafting of European Union legislation. Luxembourg: Publications Office of the European Union.Google Scholar, 11, 20). Similar advice may be found in the Australian Government’s drafting guidelines (OPC 2016OPC, Office of Parliamentary Counsel 2016Reducing complexity in legislation. Online: Australian Government.Google Scholar) or the Polish Government’s drafting guidelines (see § 10).1212.The Prime Minister’s Regulation of 20 June 2002 laying down the Principles of Legislative Drafting (Dz.U. 2002 no. 100, item 908). Terminological consistency is also recommended in clear writing and plain language guides, e.g. the Principles of Clear Writing in the US Drafting Resources for Federal Agencies: “Be consistent. Don’t use different words to denote the same things”:

DON’T SAY: Each motor vehicle owner must register his or her car with the Automobile Division of the Metropolitan Police Department.

SAY: Each automobile owner must register his or her automobile with the Automobile Division of the Metropolitan Police Department.1313. https://​www​.archives​.gov​/federal​-register​/write​/legal​-docs​/clear​-writing​.html

This type of variation is sometimes referred to as “elegant variation” (OPC 2016OPC, Office of Parliamentary Counsel 2016Reducing complexity in legislation. Online: Australian Government.Google Scholar, 10) and is associated with the literary style as a device which makes writing less monotonous. Elegant variation is strongly discouraged in legislative drafting: “You don’t need to use synonyms to make your writing more interesting. Federal writers are not creating literature”.1414. https://​www​.plainlanguage​.gov​/guidelines​/words​/use​-the​-same​-terms​-consistently/ Legal language has a much higher tolerance for repetitions and lower lexical density than general or literary language. Thus, consistency of terminology is a “virtue in legislative drafting” and a prerequisite for effective communication (Crabbe 1993Crabbe, V. C. R. A. C. 1993Legislative Drafting. London: Cavendish Publishing Limited.Google Scholar, 55) and clarity of expression (EU 2015EU, European Union 2015Joint Practical Guide of the European Parliament, the Council and the Commission for persons involved in the drafting of European Union legislation. Luxembourg: Publications Office of the European Union.Google Scholar, 11).

It is also a ‘golden’ rule of interpretation (Butt and Castle 2006Butt, Peter and Richard Castle 2006Modern Legal Drafting: A Guide to Using Clearer Language. 2nd ed. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. DOI logoGoogle Scholar, 61) based on the “presumption against a change of terminological usage” (Crabbe 1993Crabbe, V. C. R. A. C. 1993Legislative Drafting. London: Cavendish Publishing Limited.Google Scholar, citing Lord Simon in Black-Clawson International Ltd. v Papierwerke Waldof-Aschaffenburg A.-G. [1975]). Inconsistent terms may lead to “complex issues of interpretation” (OPC 2016OPC, Office of Parliamentary Counsel 2016Reducing complexity in legislation. Online: Australian Government.Google Scholar, 10) and often confuse addressees who would tend to attribute distinct meaning to two different terms even though they refer to the same concept: “Different words are taken to refer to different things, and same words to same things” (Butt and Castle 2006Butt, Peter and Richard Castle 2006Modern Legal Drafting: A Guide to Using Clearer Language. 2nd ed. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. DOI logoGoogle Scholar, 62). While the attitudes to elegant variation in legislative drafting are clearly negative, some authors admit the possibility of terminological variation “in different parts of the document where a different tone is called for” as “[t]o insist on precisely the same terminology and a uniform tone may make the document mind-numbingly boring” (Butt and Castle 2006Butt, Peter and Richard Castle 2006Modern Legal Drafting: A Guide to Using Clearer Language. 2nd ed. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. DOI logoGoogle Scholar, 203). As previously observed, elegant variation is more tolerated in other legal genres, e.g. judgments or enabling (pedagogical) genres.

Due to the systemic nature of law, drafters are also expected to maintain intertextual consistency, also known as continuity (Stefaniak 2017Stefaniak, Karolina 2017 “Terminology work in the European Commission. Ensuring high-quality translation in a multilingual environment.” In Quality aspects in institutional translation, edited by Tomáš Svoboda, Łucja Biel and Krzysztof Łoboda, 109–121. Berlin: Language Science Press.Google Scholar, 116), that is terminological consistency with the earlier body of legal texts, in particular preceding and amended instruments, related acts (e.g. implementing acts) and other instruments in the same field (EU 2015EU, European Union 2015Joint Practical Guide of the European Parliament, the Council and the Commission for persons involved in the drafting of European Union legislation. Luxembourg: Publications Office of the European Union.Google Scholar, 20), as well as higher-ranking acts. The use of continued terms and elimination of synonyms ensures “legal security and clarity”:

Delegated Regulation (EU) 2019/2201 provides for a definition of the term ‘juveniles of Northern Prawn’ in order to determine the size of fish whose number in the overall catch can trigger real-time closures of fisheries. For the sake of legal security and clarity, that Regulation should use throughout the same term for the same concept. Therefore, ‘juveniles of Northern Prawn’ should be used throughout the act, instead of any synonym thereof, such as ‘Pandalus below trigger length’ or ‘undersized Pandalus’.1515.Commission Delegated Regulation (EU) 2021/1473 of 30 June 2021 correcting Delegated Regulation (EU) 2019/2201 as regards certain rules for the implementation of real-time closures for Northern prawn fisheries in the Skagerrak OJ L 325, 15.9.2021, p. 1–5. (emphasis added)

Both intra- and intertextual variation is “always a problem” and “works to the detriment of clarity” in multilingual law, which relies on translation (Strandvik 2012Strandvik, Ingemar 2012 “Legal Harmonization Through Legal Translation: Texts that Say the Same Thing?” In The Role of Legal Translation in Legal Harmonization, edited by C. J. W. Baaij, 25–49. Alphen aan den Rijn: Wolters Kluwer.Google Scholar, 39). Inconsistencies in the source text can trigger additional variation in translation and lead to a lack of multilingual concordance between authentic language versions of a legal act, which would negatively affect the uniform application and interpretation of multilingual law (Bajčić and Dobrić Basaneže 2021Bajčić, Martina and Katja Dobrić Basaneže 2021 “Considering foreignization and domestication in EU legal translation: a corpus-based study.” Perspectives 29(5):706–721. DOI logoGoogle Scholar, 718).

Terminological consistency has an additional dimension in translation as it concerns the relationship between SL and TL concepts. Once a TL equivalent is introduced for an SL term, the same TL equivalent should in principle be used when this SL term appears unless the context requires otherwise. The requirement to ensure terminological consistency is regarded as one of industry quality criteria, stipulated with reference to translation in the general translation services standard ISO 17100 2015ISO 17100 2015Translation services – Requirements for translation services. Geneva: International Organization for Standardization.Google Scholar and the legal translation standard ISO 20771 2020ISO 20771 2020Legal translation – Requirements. Geneva: International Organization for Standardization.Google Scholar, as well as with reference to post-editing and pre-editing in the post-editing standard ISO 18587 2017ISO 18587 2017Translation services – Post-editing of machine translation output – Requirements. Geneva: International Organization for Standardization.Google Scholar. In general, the lack of terminological consistency in translation “can hinder communication, create confusion, damage a company’s image or even result in legal issues” (Bowker 2015Bowker, Lynne 2015 “Terminology and translation.” In Handbook of Terminology, edited by Hendrik J. Kockaert and Frieda Steurs, 304–323. Amsterdam: John Benjamins. DOI logoGoogle Scholar, 306).

Terminological consistency and continuity are often foregrounded in institutional (legal) translation as one of the key quality requirements and metrics alongside accuracy and clarity (Biel 2017 2017 “Quality in institutional EU translation. Parameters, policies and practices.” In Quality aspects in institutional translation, edited by Tomáš Svoboda, Łucja Biel and Krzysztof Łoboda, 31–57. Berlin: Language Science Press.Google Scholar, 34). Legal translations – or language versions of a multilingual legal act – should be “coherent, systematic, consistent” (Robertson 2015Robertson, Colin 2015 “EU Multilingual Law: Interfaces of Law, Language and Culture.” In Language and Culture in EU Law. Multidisciplinary Perspectives, edited by Susan Šarčević, 33–52. Farnham: Ashgate.Google Scholar, 40). Institutional style guides, translation tender specifications and quality guides stress both intratextual and intertextual consistency. For example, the European Commission’s Directorate General for Translation (DGT) Translation Quality Guidelines lay down the following requirement for legal documents:

Terminology must be internally and externally consistent, i.e. it must be used coherently within the act itself (without synonyms or reformulations) and in line with any basic act(s) and any parallel acts.(DGT 2015DGT, Directorate-General for Translation, European Commission 2015DGT Translation Quality Guidelines. https://​ec​.europa​.eu​/translation​/maltese​/guidelines​/documents​/dgt​_translation​_quality​_guidelines​_en​.pdf, 5)

A failure to comply with terminological consistency, that is an inconsistent term, is singled out as a type of error in the evaluation grid applied by DGT to assess external translations (Strandvik 2017 2017 “Evaluation of outsourced translations. State of play in the European Commission’s Directorate-General for Translation (DGT).” In Quality aspects in institutional translation, edited by Tomáš Svoboda, Łucja Biel and Krzysztof Łoboda, 123–137. Berlin: Language Science Press.Google Scholar, 126). If an act has already been adopted, intra- and intertextual variants may be eliminated by way of corrigenda, especially if they are confusing (Biel and Pytel 2021Biel, Łucja and Izabela Pytel 2021 “Corrigenda of EU Legislative Acts as an Indicator of Quality Assurance Failures: A Micro-Diachronic Analysis of Errors Rectified in the Polish Corrigenda.” In Institutional Translation and Interpreting: Assessing Practices and Managing for Quality, edited by Fernando Prieto Ramos, 150–173. New York: Routledge.Google Scholar with reference to EU legal acts), which is time-consuming and involves extra costs for institutions (EC 2012EC, European Commission 2012Quantifying Quality Costs and the Cost of Poor Quality in Translation. Quality Efforts and the Consequences of Poor Quality in the European Commission’s Directorate-General for Translation. Luxembourg: Publications Office of the European Union.Google Scholar, 24). Furthermore, the lack of terminological consistency may lead to linguistic divergences between the language versions of a legal act which have to be settled by the court: for example, if some versions use one term throughout while other versions use two terms to denote the same concept (Pacho Aljanati 2015Pacho Aljanati, Lucía 2015The Court of Justice of the European Union’s case law on linguistic divergences (2007–2013): interpretation criteria and implications for the translation of EU legislation. Ph.D. thesis, Departament de Dret Públic i de Ciències Historicojurídiques, Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona., 136).

Measures put in place by institutions to standardize and ensure a consistent use of terminology in translation include term bases which, among others, can contribute to the canonization of one of the acceptable variant forms and the elimination of others (Chiocchetti et al. 2017Chiocchetti, Elena, Tanja Wissik, Vesna Lušicky, and Michael Wetzel 2017 “Quality assurance in multilingual legal databases.” The Journal of Specialised Translation 27:164–188.Google Scholar, 175), databases of legal texts and CAT tools, which facilitate work with multilingual legal texts, marked by a considerable degree of “recycling” and “repetition and interconnection among texts” (Hanzl and Beaven 2017Hanzl, Jan and John Beaven 2017 “Quality assurance at the Council of the EU’s Translation Service.” In Quality aspects in institutional translation, edited by Tomáš Svoboda, Łucja Biel and Krzysztof Łoboda, 139–153. Berlin: Language Science Press.Google Scholar, 141–145).

4.2Conceptual variation as a drafting technique

As observed by Tiersma in the US context, lawyers have “a very schizophrenic attitude toward synonyms” as on the one hand they observe the “same meaning, same form” principle and on the other hand “the obsessive use of word lists by many lawyers seems to indicate a great love for synonyms, or at least, near synonyms” (1999Tiersma, Peter M. 1999Legal Language. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.Google Scholar, 113). In fact, attitudes to the phrase-level variation – synonym-strings (see Section 2.3.1.1) – vary. While it is acknowledged that they might be useful in some contexts, modern drafting and plain language guides recommend eliminating redundancy wherever possible (Adams 2013Adams, Kenneth A. 2013A Manual of Style for Contract Drafting. 3rd ed. Chicago: American Bar Association.Google Scholar, 70; Barton and Smith 2019Barton, Jill and Rachel H. Smith 2019The Handbook for the New Legal Writer. 2nd ed. New York: Wolters Kluwer.Google Scholar, 151). Synonym-strings which consist of denominative variants, that is which evoke a single concept, e.g. null and void, cease and desist, are historical remnants considered now to be a “stylistic quirk”, “mannerism” and “redundancy” (Garner 2001Garner, Bryan A. 2001A Dictionary of Modern Legal Usage. 2nd ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar, 293–294). They are still routinely used but discouraged in clear/plain language guides, for example, the US government’s plain language website1616. https://​www​.plainlanguage​.gov​/guidelines​/concise/ recommends avoiding doublets and triplets, e.g. cease and desist → stop; due and payable → due. This is specifically recommended when a string contains a special type of conceptual variants – a hypernym which subsumes the other variants, e.g. costs and expenses – since costs are a subtype of expenses (Adams 2013Adams, Kenneth A. 2013A Manual of Style for Contract Drafting. 3rd ed. Chicago: American Bar Association.Google Scholar, 606).

Yet it is acknowledged that synonym-strings composed of conceptual variants, which attempt to exhaustively cover a certain concept field with partial synonyms may be “very useful” (Mattila 2006Mattila, H. E. S. 2006Comparative Legal Linguistics. Hampshire: Ashgate.Google Scholar, 112) and “sometimes necessary” (Adams 2013Adams, Kenneth A. 2013A Manual of Style for Contract Drafting. 3rd ed. Chicago: American Bar Association.Google Scholar, 73), particularly in common law countries, because they enable lawyers to draft contracts to cover “the universe of possibilities” (Adams 2013Adams, Kenneth A. 2013A Manual of Style for Contract Drafting. 3rd ed. Chicago: American Bar Association.Google Scholar, 73) and all eventualities “without leaving gaps” by “blanket coverage of the semantic field intended” (Mattila 2006Mattila, H. E. S. 2006Comparative Legal Linguistics. Hampshire: Ashgate.Google Scholar, 112). However, they are used to the point that they are “over-cautious” (Mattila 2006Mattila, H. E. S. 2006Comparative Legal Linguistics. Hampshire: Ashgate.Google Scholar, 234) and although synonym-strings lend “elegance” and “sophistication” to the writer’s style they may be perceived as “awkward and ostentatious” (Barton and Smith 2019Barton, Jill and Rachel H. Smith 2019The Handbook for the New Legal Writer. 2nd ed. New York: Wolters Kluwer.Google Scholar, 151). Synonym-strings may be confusing and raise interpretative doubts as to whether their constituents are full synonyms, and, hence, they may entail risks: “doublets may be given unforeseen meanings by clever interpreters”, especially in the case of less frequent expressions (Garner 2001Garner, Bryan A. 2001A Dictionary of Modern Legal Usage. 2nd ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar, 294). Likewise, a court may assign “unanticipated meaning to an element in a string” (Adams 2013Adams, Kenneth A. 2013A Manual of Style for Contract Drafting. 3rd ed. Chicago: American Bar Association.Google Scholar, 71–72) as “courts routinely invoke the principle that in interpreting legal documents, every word is to be given meaning and nothing is to be treated as superfluous” (Adams 2013Adams, Kenneth A. 2013A Manual of Style for Contract Drafting. 3rd ed. Chicago: American Bar Association.Google Scholar, 71).

This interpretative principle is used more actively in civil law systems, the legal languages of which are far less tolerant of redundant synonymy. This poses some challenges to translators who are confronted with synonym-strings in English source texts. Translators are usually recommended to simplify them by eliminating redundant elements and using the most general synonym. This technique is referred to by Mayoral Asensio as “aggregate translation” by “using as few words as possible in a way that collects all the different meanings of the original in a global way” as it will improve readability and clarity although as he notes, it may “suppress the explicitness intended in the original, when the author expressly wishes to state some individual case”; this reduction may “seem suspicious to many recipients” and hence should be applied “with the utmost discretion” in official translations (2003Mayoral Asensio, Roberto 2003Translating Official Documents. Manchester: St Jerome.Google Scholar, 58). Some textbooks are more cautious, e.g. Alcaraz Varó and Hughes (2002Alcaraz Varó, Enrique and Brian Hughes 2002Legal Translation Explained. Manchester: St. Jerome.Google Scholar, 10) admit both options – literal translation with redundancy and reduction.

Finally, the use of conceptual variants may be a studied choice in multilingual law and in transposing legal instruments to make a distinction between autonomous supranational concepts and domestic legal concepts. For example, EU drafters are recommended to avoid terms of national law (EU 2015EU, European Union 2015Joint Practical Guide of the European Parliament, the Council and the Commission for persons involved in the drafting of European Union legislation. Luxembourg: Publications Office of the European Union.Google Scholar, 18) and use neologisms and generic terms in a specialized sense (Mattila 2006Mattila, H. E. S. 2006Comparative Legal Linguistics. Hampshire: Ashgate.Google Scholar, 118–119), that is to create conceptual variants.

5.Causes of legal terminology variation

This Section discusses the causes of legal variation, drawing on Freixa’s (2006)Freixa, Judit 2006 “Causes of denominative variation in terminology: A typology proposal.” Terminology. International Journal of Theoretical and Applied Issues in Specialized Communication 12(1):51–77. DOI logoGoogle Scholar typology and adjusting it to legal settings. Freixa (2006)Freixa, Judit 2006 “Causes of denominative variation in terminology: A typology proposal.” Terminology. International Journal of Theoretical and Applied Issues in Specialized Communication 12(1):51–77. DOI logoGoogle Scholar explains variation through preliminary, dialectal, functional, discursive, interlinguistic and cognitive causes. Preliminary causes pertain to language in general and are related to linguistic redundancy (co-existing with economy) and the arbitrariness of linguistic signs (Freixa 2006Freixa, Judit 2006 “Causes of denominative variation in terminology: A typology proposal.” Terminology. International Journal of Theoretical and Applied Issues in Specialized Communication 12(1):51–77. DOI logoGoogle Scholar, 53–54). Causes which are most relevant in the legal context are: dialectal, functional, discursive and cognitive ones.

Applicable dialectal causes include chronological variation and geographical variation. Chronological variation – discussed as diachronic variation in Section 2.2 – is mainly caused by the change and modernization of legal discourse, e.g., plain language movements, as well as developments triggered by new knowledge, legal solutions and harmonization of law. Geographical variation corresponds to intersystemic variation and concerns variants developed and distributed in different legal systems (see Section 3.2).

Functional causes are related to vertical variation; they involve adaptations to the level of language (channel, topic, communicative purpose, and register) and to the level of specialization, i.e., to recipients and their knowledge (Freixa 2006Freixa, Judit 2006 “Causes of denominative variation in terminology: A typology proposal.” Terminology. International Journal of Theoretical and Applied Issues in Specialized Communication 12(1):51–77. DOI logoGoogle Scholar, 56–60). In the legal domain it mainly includes variation across legal genres (prescriptive versus descriptive variants), legal and non-legal genres, including semi-legal, general-language and colloquial variants connected with popularization and adjustments to non-experts (see Section 3.1).

Interlinguistic causes, which in Freixa’s typology cover a cohabitation of the “local” term and the loanword due to language contacts, may be connected with legal transplants transferred from other legal systems to innovate or may be associated with translation.

Discursive causes are triggered by the avoidance of repetition, linguistic economy as well as creativity and emphasis (Freixa 2006Freixa, Judit 2006 “Causes of denominative variation in terminology: A typology proposal.” Terminology. International Journal of Theoretical and Applied Issues in Specialized Communication 12(1):51–77. DOI logoGoogle Scholar, 60–62). They were discussed under elegant variation (see Section 4.1). They may be expected to be controlled in legislation but more frequent in secondary genres (judgments) as a cohesive device, and in enabling genres as explanatory tools. Discursive causes often trigger linguistic variants (Daille 2017 2017Term Variation in Specialised Corpora: Characterisation, automatic discovery and applications. Amsterdam: John Benjamins. DOI logoGoogle Scholar, 35), in particular if a term violates the principle of conciseness (ISO 704 2009ISO 704 2009Terminology work – Principles and methods. Geneva: International Organization for Standardization.Google Scholar, 38; Sager 1990Sager, Juan C. 1990A Practical Course in Terminology Processing. Amsterdam: John Benjamins. DOI logoGoogle Scholar, 57), i.e. is too long or linguistically complex, creating a need to invent abbreviated forms, e.g. core principles of effective banking supervision → Basel core principles or BCP (IATE ID 913508), which are easier to recall and use.

Cognitive causes account for different viewpoints behind variants and are related to conceptual imprecision, ideological detachment and differences in conceptualization (Freixa 2006Freixa, Judit 2006 “Causes of denominative variation in terminology: A typology proposal.” Terminology. International Journal of Theoretical and Applied Issues in Specialized Communication 12(1):51–77. DOI logoGoogle Scholar, 64). Cognitive causes often trigger conceptual variants (Daille 2017 2017Term Variation in Specialised Corpora: Characterisation, automatic discovery and applications. Amsterdam: John Benjamins. DOI logoGoogle Scholar, 35) and may co-exist with other causes, such as functional, dialectal or discursive ones (Freixa 2006Freixa, Judit 2006 “Causes of denominative variation in terminology: A typology proposal.” Terminology. International Journal of Theoretical and Applied Issues in Specialized Communication 12(1):51–77. DOI logoGoogle Scholar, 67). In the dynamic approach to variation, concepts are multidimensional and can be seen from a number of perspectives (Rogers 2004Rogers, Margaret 2004 “Multidimensionality in concepts systems: A bilingual textual perspective.” Terminology. International Journal of Theoretical and Applied Issues in Specialized Communication 10(2):215–240. DOI logoGoogle Scholar; Temmerman 2000Temmerman, Rita 2000Towards New Ways of Terminology Description: The sociocognitive approach. Amsterdam: John Benjamins. DOI logoGoogle Scholar), depending on which aspect of a concept needs to be foregrounded. Different conceptualizations can be triggered if a term violates the principle of transparency, one of the basic term formation principles (ISO 704 2009ISO 704 2009Terminology work – Principles and methods. Geneva: International Organization for Standardization.Google Scholar, 39; Sager 1990Sager, Juan C. 1990A Practical Course in Terminology Processing. Amsterdam: John Benjamins. DOI logoGoogle Scholar, 57). If a prescriptive (legislative) term is opaque, it may prompt users to come up with variants which are more transparent and comprehensible and, hence, which provide easier and more precise prompts to evoke the concept. The previously discussed non-legislative Polish variant umowa kupna-sprzedaży [purchase-sales contract] incorporates the point of view of both the buyer and the seller in contrast to the legislative variant umowa sprzedaży [sales contract], which accounts only for the seller and hence, as can be deduced from the popularity of the former, is felt by the users as inadequate. Differences in conceptualization may be combined with ideologically-loaded and emotionally-charged choices and variants may have different – negative, positive or neutral – semantic prosodies. Such shifts in evaluation were documented in Mariani’s (2021)Mariani, Jessica 2021 “Migration terminology in the EU Institutions: Overview and patterns of use of terms from 1950 to 2016.” Terminology. International Journal of Theoretical and Applied Issues in Specialized Communication 27(1):35–55. DOI logoGoogle Scholar study of the evolution of EU terms denoting migrants over decades, identifying over 50 terms developed to denote different motives, conditions of entry and legal status, but also semantic prosodies, e.g. third-country national, alien, controversial illegal migrant replaced by irregular migrant, forced migrant, displaced person, overstayer, asylum seeker versus applicant for international protection, etc. The choice of a variant “plays a vital role in making an impact in the representation of migrants and refugees in political institutions and society” (Mariani 2021Mariani, Jessica 2021 “Migration terminology in the EU Institutions: Overview and patterns of use of terms from 1950 to 2016.” Terminology. International Journal of Theoretical and Applied Issues in Specialized Communication 27(1):35–55. DOI logoGoogle Scholar, 35). It is also ideologically important which variants are chosen in legislation as they become prioritized and sanctioned as authoritative, thus shaping conceptualizations in other discourses. Another cause of cognitively motivated variation is conceptual imprecision (fuzzy boundaries of concepts, low degree of concept fixation) and the lack of conceptual stability (Freixa 2006Freixa, Judit 2006 “Causes of denominative variation in terminology: A typology proposal.” Terminology. International Journal of Theoretical and Applied Issues in Specialized Communication 12(1):51–77. DOI logoGoogle Scholar, 64). For example, Hourani-Martín and Tabares-Plasencia (2020Hourani-Martín, Dunia and Encarnación Tabares-Plasencia 2020 “Morphosyntactic and semantic behaviour of legal phraseological units: A case study in Spanish verb-noun constructions about money laundering.” Terminology. International Journal of Theoretical and Applied Issues in Specialized Communication 26(1):108–131. DOI logoGoogle Scholar, 113–114) report considerable terminological variation in Spanish equivalents of the term money laundering, e.g. blanqueo de capitales [capital bleaching], legitimación de capital [capital legalization], lavado de activos [asset laundering], which they explain with controversies in legal literature as to whether the concealed money has to be illicit or not.

Although Freixa does not list it as a cause of variation, unmotivated variation should also be acknowledged. It is typically attributed to an error and may be due to a lack of care or even sloppiness, insufficient knowledge, insufficient quality control and inadequate resources, both as regards drafting and translation. For example, terminological resources do not always account for variants and if they do, the nature of variation is rarely explained. The inconsistent use of terminology is a frequent problem in machine translation and post-editing (cf. Stefaniak and Killman in this volume), which are being used increasingly more at international institutions. Although there are applications which facilitate automatic checks of consistency, especially in translation, such variants may not be easy to spot, especially in monolingual contexts and when working with inflectional languages.

Variation may be facilitated by the sheer length of texts: “despite the principle that drafters should be rigorously consistent in their use of terminology, in a lengthy document the drafter may well slip” (Butt and Castle 2006Butt, Peter and Richard Castle 2006Modern Legal Drafting: A Guide to Using Clearer Language. 2nd ed. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. DOI logoGoogle Scholar, 203). Length can have a “multiplier effect” in translation as long texts are often split between several translators (Guzmán and Prieto Ramos 2021Guzmán, Diego and Fernando Prieto Ramos 2021 “Assessing legal terminological variation in institutional translation: The case of national court names in the human rights monitoring procedures of the United Nations.” Translation and Translanguaging in Multilingual Contexts 7(2):224–247. DOI logoGoogle Scholar, 21). Another factor is the complexity of drafting, in particular the collective authorship, involving a large number of drafters: “inconsistencies of language can arise when large numbers of drafting teams are working on the same Act” (OPC 2016OPC, Office of Parliamentary Counsel 2016Reducing complexity in legislation. Online: Australian Government.Google Scholar, 10), translators and other experts. For example, under an ordinary legislative procedure an EU legal act passes through three institutions – the European Commission, the Council and the European Parliament – where it is consulted, modified and translated by different sets of experts, which results in a “patched” text (Biel and Pytel 2021Biel, Łucja and Izabela Pytel 2021 “Corrigenda of EU Legislative Acts as an Indicator of Quality Assurance Failures: A Micro-Diachronic Analysis of Errors Rectified in the Polish Corrigenda.” In Institutional Translation and Interpreting: Assessing Practices and Managing for Quality, edited by Fernando Prieto Ramos, 150–173. New York: Routledge.Google Scholar, 156) and ample opportunities for inadvertent variation. The fragmentation of texts and translation teams has been listed by Prieto Ramos and Guzmán (2018Prieto Ramos, Fernando and Diego Guzmán 2018 “Legal Terminology Consistency and Adequacy as Quality Indicators in Institutional Translation: A Mixed-Method Comparative Study.” In Institutional Translation for International Governance: Enhancing Quality in Multilingual Legal Communication, edited by Fernando Prieto Ramos, 81–101. London: Bloomsbury.Google Scholar, 97) as one of the variation facilitators in institutional translation.

Some additional causes may trigger variation in translation. Besides the very nature of translation as a constrained choice out of a number of options, one cannot not notice that some concepts trigger a small range while others a broader range of variants. The discussion focuses on the causes identified by Biel and Koźbiał (2020)Biel, Łucja and Dariusz Koźbiał 2020 “How do translators handle (near-) synonymous legal terms? A mixed-genre parallel corpus study into the variation of EU English-Polish competition law terminology.” Estudios de Traducción 10:69–90. DOI logoGoogle Scholar.

The first group of causes is associated with the properties of SL concepts:

  1. conceptual imprecision,

  2. opacity,

  3. metaphorization,

  4. polysemy,

  5. low termness.

Metaphorized terms can be illustrated with whistleblower, which has more than one equivalent in most EU official languages in its IATE entry (ID 2201493), with as many as five variants in Finish and Italian (see Chart 3) and four in Danish, Polish and Greek, with few languages marking one of the variants as “preferred”. This degree of variation may be caused by the fact that a metaphor necessitates a choice between the metaphorical rendering and demetaphorization, e.g., a metaphor is unknown in the TL or the TL is less tolerant of metaphorical terms. For example, capital injection is both translated in Polish language versions of EU law literally as zastrzyk kapitału [capital injection] (IATE ID 1177045) and through demetaphorized explicitation dokapitalizowanie [additional-capitalization], among others. See also Bromwich and Manzella (2018)Bromwich, William and Pietro Manzella 2018 “Shock absorbers, tax wedges and white resignations: language challenges in comparative industrial relations.” The Translator 24(1):70–88. DOI logoGoogle Scholar on the difficulties connected with translating metaphorical terms of industrial relations and Prieto Ramos and Guzmán’s (2018)Prieto Ramos, Fernando and Diego Guzmán 2018 “Legal Terminology Consistency and Adequacy as Quality Indicators in Institutional Translation: A Mixed-Method Comparative Study.” In Institutional Translation for International Governance: Enhancing Quality in Multilingual Legal Communication, edited by Fernando Prieto Ramos, 81–101. London: Bloomsbury.Google Scholar study of variants of metaphorical terms, e.g. hedge fund, tariff peak, tariff escalation, in institutional translation (even though the authors do not attribute variation to metaphorization per se).

Chart 3.IATE entry of whistleblower
Chart 3.