I have been teaching legal English in the Netherlands for more than 10 years now, and I have taught all sorts of people: legal secretaries, support staff, commercial lawyers, lawyers from boutique firms, and lawyers from the public prosecutions office. And of course, they all want (and need) something different… English for negotiating the terms of a contract, learning about the English criminal court system, how to write a legal letter, etc, etc, etc… But that’s the beauty of teaching small groups – you can tailor your lesson to their precise requirements.
Setting aside the differences there are topics which come up in every group. Not surprisingly, there aren’t many as the subject material for a legal secretary is quite different from that of a commercial lawyer. But there is a single English word which, strangely enough, seems to come up in every single course. The word? ‘Concept.’
‘Concept’ is, of course, an English word and a Dutch word. Logically, you would think that they have the same meaning, but that is when we come to the topic of this article – false friends.
So what are false friends?
False friends are a familiar idea for language teachers. They are pairs of words that look as if they are the same in the mother tongue as in the target language. They ought to have the same meaning, right? But they don’t, so the apparently friendly and familiar words are actually ‘false friends.’ That brings us back to our starting point – the word ‘concept.’ When Dutch lawyers translate a ‘concept overeenkomst’ into English as a ‘concept contract,’ what they should be talking about is a ‘draft contract.’ I have even had difficulty in convincing some Dutch lawyers that a ‘concept contract’ is an impossible combination in English. A ‘concept’ is an intangible idea, translatable into Dutch as the word ‘begrip’.
And this is not the only false friend that pops up in the legal language world. Another common pair is ‘procedure’ – a Dutch word which cannot be directly converted to its English equivalent, because the English word ‘procedure’ translates more accurately into the Dutch ‘behandeling’. If you want to talk about what happens in court, then you should be talking about ‘legal proceedings’, not a ‘legal procedure’ which sounds more like it should be taking place in a hospital than in a court!
Confused? I’m not surprised. Here are some more common false friends for you to look out for:
The Dutch word ‘jurisprudentie’ does not mean the same as the English word ‘jurisprudence’ which actually means ‘the theory or philosophy of law’. A correct translation for this expression would be ‘case law’ or ‘precedent’. And a ‘statutair directeur’ cannot be translated into a ‘statutory director’, as tempting as it may be to do so! The much less exciting translation is ‘director (appointed pursuant to the Articles of Association).’
There are also many non-legally specific vocabulary items which lawyers frequently use which also like to catch us out. Here are a few more examples: