I n the field of law, Japan certainly cannot yet be said to be sufficiently open vis-a-vis other countries. In order to improve this situation, a law-and-ordinance translation group set up within the government’s Office for Promotion of Justice System Reform has unveiled a project to translate legislation into English, with priority given to basic laws such as the Civil Code.

At present, government ministries and agencies and private organizations engage in the translation of some legislation, but separately and without any consistency. The working group proposes, through government involvement, to formulate and unify the basic rules of translation, such as what terms and expressions should be used, to ensure that translations are both accurate and easy to understand.

The translation of laws and ordinances into foreign languages would facilitate international business and promote investment by foreign companies. It would also help support the establishment of legal systems in developing countries, especially those in Asia, introduce and increase knowledge of Japanese legislation in other countries, and familiarize foreign residents with life in Japan.

At present, only a few translations of official legislation are posted at the Web sites of individual government offices, such as the English version of the Constitution by the Prime Minister’s Office, the Immigration Control and Refugee Recognition Law by the Ministry of Justice, the Public Finance Law by the Ministry of Finance, and the Air Pollution Law by the Ministry of the Environment.

English translations produced by private-sector companies are on sale, but they are often the work of translators with no experience in legal affairs, so companies and legal practitioners do not consider them to be very reliable. Organizations such as Nippon Keidanren (Japan Business Federation) and the Japan Federation of Bar Associations have called for the promotion of translations with government involvement.

According to the working group, translations into English should be urgently promoted for areas where there is strong demand, such as the Civil Code and other fundamental pieces of legislation, intellectual property laws, economic laws, labor laws and administrative procedure laws. Although they would not be defined as official government translations, they would follow a set of unified rules indicating, in principle, the most appropriate terms to be used and so forth. It would be in the interest of both the government and the private sector to respect these translation rules. For example, the rules might stipulate that saiken should be translated as “credit” and saikensha as “creditor.” The working group also recommends that translations be computerized so that users can easily access them.

The Cabinet Office is scheduled to establish a study group in December to further promote this work. Learned people and representatives of government ministries and agencies who participate will discuss how to build an infrastructure that serves as a bridge between government and private-sector efforts. Within this study group, a working subcommittee of experts will compile specific translation rules, disclose trial translations and terminology dictionaries, and amend them to reflect opinions received from various quarters. The study group will then issue proposals in December of next year. Full-scale translation work will begin after that. In the future, languages other than English will also be considered.

Overseas, translations are carried out in an organized manner. In the 25-nation European Union, for example, each country’s laws and ordinances are translated into 20 official languages, such as English, French, German and Spanish. As many as 12 million specialists are involved in the process.

In Japan also, it would be desirable for the government to set up a special department to handle this work so that it could supply the latest translations at all times. In planning the budget and personnel for this process, the government should establish conditions that make it easy for companies and related people to cooperate.

The translation of laws and ordinances into foreign languages not only would be useful for foreigners but also would benefit Japanese companies, civic groups and others that need to explain the situation in Japan overseas.

For Japan to be a member of the international community in the true sense, Japan must provide the foreign students and workers that it accepts with a good understanding of its legal system. For this purpose also, accurate and standardized translations would be of great help.

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