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Legal language. A terminology analysis of the Romanian Criminal Code.

1. Introduction

The field of law plays a major role within the contemporary globalized world, deeply influencing the lives of the members of any society. Legal language seems to be complex, pompous, laborious, sinuous, archaic, crowded with Latin expressions (e.g., "mens rea"--"guilty mind"/"criminal intent;" "res judicata"--"a matter judged;" "actus reus"), and exaggerative syntax constructions. Moreover, the legal system in English speaking countries is based on the common law tradition while in Romance speaking countries, such as Romania, it relies on the civil law tradition. Besides these cultural and legal differences, translators must also find solutions the problems arising out of translating a text produced in one specific language and legal context and received in a different language and legal context (Geyer and Bright 1996).

According to Bhatia, Candlin and Engberg (2008), translators should have basic legal knowledge of the source and target languages, and they must be fully aware of the distinction between these cultures and even of the absence of equivalent concepts. Other situations which require an interdisciplinary approach are the existence in the target language of more than one different concept for a single legal term in the source language, and the existence of different meanings of the same term, in different branches of law--private or public law.

2. Research Questions and Methodology

The central questions of our study are: How does the translator choose between similar terms? What insights do translators have in their own learning process, specifically, if they prefer to make sense of the context or remain faithful to the source language? In order to reveal the best approaches that the translator can use in order to choose between synonymy and polysemy in the language of law, a corpus-driven study on the lexis of legal English was conducted in an endeavor to automatically extract the specialized vocabulary. The analysis was performed on the corpus in order to demonstrate language variation in the official English translation of the Romanian Criminal Code and to get information on lexical behavior and its contribution to mapping the lexical profile of the register.

Our study is based on the results provided by applying the WordStat text analysis software to two legal documents, in English and Romanian. This linguistic tool can be used for extracting and analyzing information from large documents; content analysis; taxonomy development; providing statistical and visualization tools to interpret word frequencies etc. (

This content analysis instrument generated a word list with the frequency of occurrence for each word. Furthermore, we established the unit/term "crime" as the root and made a new inquiry in order to identify the common lexicon.

3. Corpus Analysis

As shown in the table above, the corpora in Romanian and English languages have a quite extensive number of words, i.e. 37,284 and 34,825 words. As it may be noticed, the source text has a slightly larger number of words than the target text, due to the different morphological and lexicological structure of each language (for instance, in English, the definite article "the" is counted as a separate word, while in Romanian the definite article is added at the end of the word; in Romanian, "perfectul compus" is formed by the auxiliary verb "to have" and the past participle of the main verb (the auxiliary and the past participle of the verb are counted as two separate verbs), while in English, the equivalent of "perfect compus" is past tense, which is formed by adding "ed" to the regular verb or by using the second form of the verb for irregular verbs, being counted as only one word; or there are words in one language that are translated by using two or even more words in the other language: "de la"--"from;" "ar trebui"--"should;" "mai mult"--"more;" "he should be punished"--"el ar trebui sa fie pedepsit"). The table below is quite revealing in several ways. First, there were 543 different 4-word phrases found in the text. The following phrases are repeated more than once.

Second, this table also reveals the lexical cohesion, which is concerned with connections among lexical items. The following cohesive relations are obvious: repetition or reiteration; systematic semantic relations or synonymy; and non-systematic semantic relations or collocations. Repetition implies the identical recurrence of a preceding lexical item which establishes a cohesive connection between lexical items as a referential link (Stanojevic, 2012: 94-95). Our corpus abounds in repetitions: "There is guilt when an act that represents a social danger is committed with intent or out of negligence. 1. An act was committed with intent when the offender: a) foresaw the outcome of his/her act, and intended for this outcome to take place by the commission of that act." The purpose of repetitions is to better clarify the terminology used within the document and to avoid possible misunderstandings, as much as possible. As it is well-known, synonymy means the (approximate) 'identity of senses of two or more lexical items. In the case of synonymy, lexical cohesion results from the choice of a lexical item that is synonymous with a preceding one' (Halliday and Hasan 1976: 331). In our corpus research, we detected several synonyms related to the lexical field of the words "crime," "penalties," "committing" and "perpetrator." Examples of such synonyms in the corpus are: "perpetrator" and "offender;" "perpetration" and "commission;" "penalty," "sanction" and "punishment;" "sanction" and "punish;" "occurrence of an act;" "realization of an act;" "detention" and "imprisonment." In semantics it is important to keep in mind that synonyms should have almost the same sense (while they may or may not have the same referent) and that we should pay great attention to their context, in order to avoid confusion and to discourage the possibility of various and even contradicting interpretations, especially when it comes to legal provisions. We should keep in mind that most expressions or phrases which are interchangeable synonyms in the general language are not interchangeable in legal language (Kocbek, 2006: 245). 'Collocation, as the tendency of at least two lexical items to co-occur in a language, can serve as a source of lexical cohesion since collocational relationship is one of the factors on which we build our expectations of what is to come next' (Halliday and Hasan, 1976: 333), facilitating thus our more rapid understanding (and even translation) of the text. The cohesive effect of collocation depends on the proximity and closeness features of the lexical items in the text. Some legal English collocations identified in the corpus are: "commit murder," "release on parole," "assign rights," "sentence to imprisonment," "cancel an order"--verb + noun; "strict imprisonment," "public interest," "binding obligation," "criminal law," "aggravating circumstance," "criminal responsibility," "corporal integrity," "criminal antecedents"--adjective + noun; "commission of an offence," "measure of coercion," "life imprisonment"--noun + noun. As it can be seen from the second table above, by focusing on the fields of "crime" and "punishment" (as core concepts), we can better understand the need of clear legal expressions.

The analysis of key words has clearly identified that the English language of criminal law has a great deal of nouns as key words, with adjectives and verbs as the next two word classes more commonly used, and that the majority of the words used are semi-technical (such as "penalty," "offender," "offence," "detention," "convict," provision," "prohibit," "trial," "fine," "relapse," "court," "party," "complaint") and non-technical words (such as "use," "allow," "work," "belong," "establish," "purpose," "oblige," "means," "respect," "act," "action" etc.). However, we also encountered technical words and expressions belonging to the terminology of criminal law, which need special knowledge within the field: "ignoble reasons," "mitigating circumstances," "conditional suspension," "manslaughter," "criminal liability," "educatory measure of reprimand," "perpetrator," "prescription," "act of eluding service."

Table 3 illustrates the frequency of words within the corpus. As it may be noticed, the corpus abounds in words from categories such as "imprisonment," "crimes and delicts," "security," "dignity," "good usage." Although the key words in this analysis were derived by using the entire text of the Criminal Code as a reference corpus, a complete picture of the lexis specific to criminal law, which is different from general English language, cannot be obtained due to the fact that, besides the Criminal Code, there are other legal texts using special terminology from other branches of criminal law, such as international criminal law, crimes against humanity, green criminology etc.

In its turn, Table 4 below illustrates the procedure followed in the analysis, and it is structured in four sections: frequency, distribution, collocates and clusters. This table shows how certain legal terms (such as "cause," "imprisonment," "delicts," "crime," "criminal," "breach") collocate with other words in the corpus (resulting collocates such as "criminal liability," "life imprisonment," "causes that remove," "delicts against family," "breach of trust") and also reveals that the corpus abounds in semi-technical and non-technical words and expressions, making the text accessible, to some extent, to non-specialized users. However, due to both the specificity of the legal field and the terminological and conceptual differences between the Romanian and English legal systems, not only do translators have to pay more attention to the issues raised by these issues, but they also should have some legal knowledge in the field.

As for the repetition of nouns referring to persons (such as "victim", "minor," "person," "offender," "perpetrator," "member"), in order to avoid ambiguity and to do a "politically correct" translation, the pronominal pairs "he/she," "him/her," "himself/herself" are extensively used referring thus to both genders, i.e. masculine and feminine.

Our corpus provided the instance in which the lexical item "crime" (and words from its lexical family, such as the adjective "criminal" or the nouns "criminality" and "incrimination") is used repeatedly. The repetition of this lexical item is demonstrated in the tables above and it can be explained as the identical recurrence of a preceding lexical item which establishes a cohesive connection between the lexical items as a referential link (such as "criminal law," "criminal liability," "criminal prosecution," "criminal action," "criminal lawsuit," "criminal jurisdiction," "criminal consequences," "criminality of acts"). Nevertheless, a cohesive connection is also achieved by the use of a pronoun or adjective (such as "violent" in "violent action", "related" in "related means," "property-related juridical interests"). Moreover, technical and semi-technical words, such as "crime," "perpetrator," "committing" and "causing," could pose a problem even to those translators who have a high proficiency in the English language; therefore, these words would have to be given a more uniform translation. For instance, attention should be paid when translating the noun "crime" since, in the Romanian language, it may mean "asasinat" ("assassination"), "crima" ("homicide), "delict" ("delinquency"), "infractiune" ("offence"), "marcavie" ("abjection"), "nelegiuire" ("iniquity"), "ticalocie" ("abjection"), "ucidere" ("manslaughter"). The same happens with the noun "perpetrator," which may be translated into Romanian as "autor" ("author"), "criminal" ("murderer"), "faptac" ("wrongdoer") or in the case of the verb "to commit," which may refer to "a comite (o crima)" ("to perpetrate"), "a se compromite" ("to compromise"), "a face" ("to do"), "a faptui" ("to commit a wrong"), "a se obliga" ("to bind" or "to compel"), "a savarsi" ("to bring off").

Overall, the corpus based on the Romanian Criminal Code serves as an indicator which reveals that the largest word class categories among the key words were similar, that is, nouns indicating different types of illegal acts: crimes, felonies and wrongful acts ("offenses," "theft," "abuse," "rape," "kidnapping," "piracy," "smuggling," "robbery," "arson"). This was followed by adjectives ("criminal," "sanctioned," "punishable," "unjustified," "judged," "injured," "committed") and then by verbs ("sanction," "punish," "cause," "sentence," "commit"). The text had the highest average percentage of nouns like "crime," "sanction" and synonyms of these words as keywords (69%). One can notice that the noun "crime" and its synonyms, whose conceptual frame is illustrated in Table 5, are very common words used within the corpus, but the terms "act," "action," and "harm" have high occurrences as well.

Then we analyzed the occurrence of words with an -ing form, such as: "exceeding," "pending," "tending," "partaking," "canceling," "killing," "determining," "rejoining," "sanctioning," "sharing," "suffering," "gathering," "restoring," "exercising," "causing," "facilitating," "evaluating," "resulting," "granting," "following," "justifying," "carrying."

As it may be noticed, within the corpus, the "-ing" suffix is used as a present participle ("he/she was domiciling"), as a gerund ("if living and sharing a household"), and as an independent noun ("meaning," "gathering," "the merging") or adjective ("ending date," "aggravating circumstance," "the act of determining, facilitating or helping," "the remaining penalty").

The conjunctions "and" and "or" can be both conjunctive and disjunctive which may cause ambiguity, and our corpus provided examples for these phenomena: "approved with amendments and supplements," "the rights and freedoms of persons," "either wholly or in part," "the penalty reduced or replaced," "it was committed with intent or out of negligence," "either wholly or in part," "he/she committed the act in order to save his/her life, corporal integrity or health, or that of another, or an important asset belonging to him/her or to another, or a public interest, from imminent danger;" "the complementary penalties (...) shall be applied with the contents (...) provided by the latter, and those that are no longer provided by the new criminal law shall no longer be applied;" "Complementary punishments (...) shall no longer be served, and those having a correspondent in the new law shall be served."

4. Conclusion

This paper has considered issues concerning specialized vocabulary, synonymy and the cohesive devices of legal discourse. It has centered on the results of the corpus-based study which have been outlined and elaborated.


Bhatia, V. Vijay Kumar, Christopher N. Candlin, and Jan Engberg (2008), Legal Discourse Across Cultures and Systems. Hong Kong University Press.

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Dahl, H. S. (1999), Dahl's Law Dictionary/Diccionario Juridico Dahl, 3rd edn. New York: William S. Hein & Co.

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Ovidius University of Constanta


Ovidius University of Constanta

Table 1. Number of words in the corpus

Criminal Code--English version    34. 825 words
Criminal Code--Romanian version   37.284 words

Table 2. Expressions in the field of
crime and punishment:

Count   Phrase

4       be punished by imprisonment
4       be punished by strict
4       shall be punished by
3       shall be strict imprisonment from
3       penalty shall be strict
3       punished by strict imprisonment from
3       imprisonment from 6 months
3       and the prohibition of
3       strict imprisonment from 2 to
3       the prohibition of certain
3       shall be strict imprisonment
3       interruption in the course
2       the penalty provided in
2       be sanctioned for the
2       detention from 15 to
2       strict imprisonment from 5 to
2       year or by days
2       1 acts causing to
2       months to one year
2       commission of an offence
2       initiated upon prior complaint
2       of parties removes criminal
2       by therapeutic reasons according
2       according to legal provisions
3       injury needing medical care
2       imprisonment from 3 to 10
2       shall be imprisonment from
2       criminal action is initiated

Table 4 Words by Frequency, Distribution, Collocates and Clusters

security            causes that           2   4.25   0.012   0.2
public interests    remove criminal       1   5.48   0.032   0
                      liability justice
property            breach of trust       1   5.48   0.032   0
pornography         labor protection      1   5.48   0.032   0
labor protection    cult                  1   5.48   0.032   0
justice             economic life         1   5.48   0.032   0
imprisonment        penalties             2   2.95   0.094   0.1
good usage          pornography           1   5.48   0.032   0
dignity             delicts against       1   3.81   0.065   0.1
delicts against     family pornography    2   2.95   0.094   0.1
family delicts      good usage            2   2.95   0.094   0.1
family crimes       violence              1   5.48   0.032   0
  and delicts
complementary       circumstances         1   3.81   0.065   0.1
circumstances       mitigating            2   2.95   0.094   0.1
causes that         crimes and delicts    2   3.74   0.063   0.1
remove criminal     public interests      1   5.48   0.032   0
  liability bribe
breach of trust     destruction           1   5.48   0.032   0
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Article Details
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Author:Nadrag, Lavinia; Buzarna-Tihenea, Alina "Galbeaza"
Publication:Contemporary Readings in Law and Social Justice
Article Type:Report
Geographic Code:4EXRO
Date:Jan 1, 2014
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