Legal Translation Services
Help Avoid Ambiguity in
Legal Document Translation

Legal Translation and Crying “Fowl!”- The Infamous “Chicken Case”

Professional legal document translation requires special knowledge, experience and skills. Legal language ambiguity manifested by the ambiguity in the source English legal documents and in foreign language documents can often lead to unacceptable legal translation errors. We’ve blogged about the devastation that was caused by the misinterpretation of the Japanese word mokusatsu. Did you know that there is more than one way to define a “chicken?” Now, we are not referring to the countless forms that chicken has taken in our lexicon of fast food these days. Yes, our fast food industry is so creative that we have chicken in strip, nugget, popcorn, and . . . wait for it . . . fry form. What we are referring to, though, is a case that came before a federal court in New York City back in the 1960s.

The “Chicken Case” – Frigaliment vs. B.N.S.

In this case, called Frigaliment Importing Co. vs. B.N.S. International Sales Corp., a Swiss company wanted to buy chickens from a company in New York. Specifically, the Swiss company wanted chicken in two sizes: 1.5 to 2 lbs., and 2.5 to 3 lbs. Sounds easy enough, right? Not so fast.

The New York company shipped the chickens as required. Yet, when they arrived in Europe, the Swiss company quickly realized that the seller provided “stewing” chickens.

The Swiss company, much to their frustration, wanted “broiler” and “fryer” chickens instead.

Indeed, the Swiss company cried, “fowl!”. Suffice it to say that the Swiss company sued the New York sellers for breach of contract.

As the German word, Huhn, includes both Brathuhr (broiler) and Suppenhuhn (stewing chicken), the question of “what does the word ‘chicken’ mean?” became the primary issue before the court in this contract case. Specifically, the Swiss company believed the contractual term “chicken” meant young chickens that were suitable for broiling and frying. The New York company, in response, claimed that the contractual term “chicken” meant “any bird of the genus that meets contract specifications on weight and quality, including what it calls ‘stewing chicken.’”

In reviewing the case, the federal district court realized that both meanings of the word “chicken” were plausible. Ultimately, however, the court concluded that the Swiss company did not sustain its burden to prove that its definition of chicken was the correct one as envisioned by the contract.

The Challenging Existence of Lexical Ambiguity in the Legal Language

In the court’s Frigaliment opinion, the court aptly quoted from the great jurist Oliver Wendell Holmes:

The making of a contract depends not on the agreement of two minds in one intention, but on the agreement of two sets of external signs – not on the parties’ having meant the same thing but on their having said the same thing.
The Path of the Law, in Collected Legal Papers, p. 178.

“Saying the same thing” in a contract is sometimes more difficult than it seems.

Indeed, the “chicken case” puts a fine point on the problems of ambiguities.

While our society tolerates some amount of ambiguity in our texts, tweets, emails, and other types of everyday communications, we typically believe that legal documents are those that are totally unambiguous. We assume that somehow because contracts are written by lawyers, that such wordsmiths are able to distill any ambiguity out of a document. Not so.

In fact, as any lawyer or law student will tell you, the written word is a very poor vehicle for specific, unambiguous communication. Think about it. When you converse with someone, you are communicating with words, but you are also, in larger part, communicating non-verbally. Intention is often picked up during a conversation with non-verbal, rather than verbal, cues.

Indeed, you can take the same sentence – “I love chicken fries,” for example – in several ways depending upon the non-verbal communication accompanying the sentence. The sentence “I love chicken fries” can be understood by the listener as a literally true statement, or, based on body language and facial expression, as an ironic or sarcastic statement. The words don’t do the lion’s share of the work in that communication. Rather, it is the non-verbal communication that gives the listener the correct intention.

That principle bears out in the fact that text message communication can be easily misunderstood. That ambiguity has led to our reliance on “emojis” with facial expressions to communicate meaning and intention.

Lawyers, however, don’t have the luxury of non-verbal communication (or even emoticons and emojis). Rather, the written legal language document must try to be as clear and unambiguous as possible.

Professional Legal Translation Services to the Rescue

Given that ambiguity pervades our communications in life and in legal documents, we need assistance. Removing ambiguity in legal documents is particularly important because legal documents typically involve important information that can impact someone’s business, end-of-life wishes, or any number of vital legal matters. Further, legal documents are not as “reader-friendly” as a text message to begin with.

So, how do we get clarity in our legal documents? The answer is professional legal translation services. Taking the “chicken case” as an example, the contract between the Swiss buyer and New York seller was in two languages – German and English. Further, the term chicken was left undefined beyond the generic term “chicken.” If a legal translation service were involved in the business deal, however, it would have been able to clarify the term “chicken” so both parties were on the same page.

More generally, professional legal translators understand the nuances of the languages with which they work and the cultures where those languages exist. Therefore, if there is a term that actually has more than one meaning (or has shades of meaning depending on context) a professional legal translator will be able to spot those possible ambiguities and request clarification from the lawyers who had drafted that document in English before someone cries, “foul!” (or “fowl!”).

If you or your business frequently negotiate contracts with foreign businesses, carefully consider whether you would benefit from working with a professional legal language translation service with expertise in German translation services, Mandarin translation services, Russian translation service, Korean translation services. For more details on what added value a legal translator can provide, contact All Language Alliance, Inc.

Up Next: Translating Licensing Agreements
from English to Simplified Chinese