The Tower of legal Babel

It is said about literary works that translations are the other side of the carpet. They lose much of the beauty. But when a court judgment in English is translated into national languages the result could be a nightmare like the Tower of Babel. In an age-old nation like ours which had only a recent contact with western jurisprudence translations could face formidable hurdles. 

The judiciary has launched an ambitious programme to make available judgments of the Supreme Court and high courts in local languages. Important judgments run into hundreds of pages like the celebrated Kesavananda Bharati, judges’ appointments cases, and recently, the right to privacy judgment. They are no easy read, with footnotes and references at the bottom of the page. The hangover of the Anglo-Saxon tradition leads to a sprinkling of Latin and French phrases, apart from US and Commonwealth case law. 

Moreover, several judges tend to be loquacious and have been criticised for that. Late V R Krishna Iyer consistently rode a polysyllabic mare to tilt at windmills of social injustice in his classic judgments. Several others also use exotic words and syntax. Recently, Chief Justice Ranjan Gogoi is reported to have conceived a project to provide short summaries of important judgments, but it has not taken off.

The judiciary is not digitally savvy, though it claimed recently that it is going paperless. In fact, it has just taken over 12 acres of the former Appu Ghar nearby to store its papers. It is not yet equipped to use computers for translation. Even if AI is used, robots would be foxed by judges’ language. There is an apocryphal story in which CIA engaged computers to translate Russian. When it came to the biblical sentence, “spirit is willing; but flesh is weak”, the printout read: Vodka is good; but the meat is awful. So a large number of specially trained translators have to be employed.

There are endless wrangles in courts, reflected in judgments, over the use of simple words like “shall” and “may”. After long and intricate discussions, shall in a statute is sometimes “read down” as may and on other occasions, may is “read up” to mean shall. Law journals have a separate section on the latest interpretation given by courts to ordinary phrases.

Judgments are only part of the problem. Legal draftsmen have often confounded judges with woolly phrases. Some jurists think that half the litigation in the writ courts is the consequence of bad draftsmanship. When judgments are written, those provisions running into several pages are cited fully. This would make the task of the translators doubly difficult. Last week, a Jharkhand liquor law provision in Hindi had to be translated twice into English to satisfy SC judges regarding its accuracy. The sections were named in hybrid language, like “Rule 106(Tha)”. The problem would be compounded if all these have to be translated into 23 scheduled languages of the Constitution, including Bodo, Santhali and Sanskrit.

The SC has often criticised lawmakers for not correcting errors — even typos — despite pointing them out. Judges have to iron out clumsy clauses in law. On four provisions in the Excise Act, the court wrote, “subjected to amendments from time to time, they have now become so complicated that in order to discern their meaning, it becomes necessary to read them back and forth several times”. In a similar situation, a British judge remarked that he tried holding the lines upside down too, with no result. If judges say so, what would a lesser translator do? The legal profession treats words of statutes and judgments like religious texts. With several translations, they would argue over comparative translations till their jaws ache and pockets runneth over.

It is well to remember the old adage that hell is paved with good intentions. The translation move may be politically correct, but the immediate need is to provide ordinary people a simple summary of judgments, as Gogoi planned. In the 1,000-page Kesavananda judgment, the judges themselves felt the need to provide a summary. But that summary itself ran into controversy because it is argued that the “basic structure theory” came out of the summary, not from the judgment. Quicksands abound in the legal field.