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Teaching translation of specialised legal texts – on the basis of official documents (birth certificate)

Edyta Źrałka, Unesco Chair for Translation Studies and Intercultural Communication, and Jagiellonian University, Cracow, Faculty of Philology


The main concern of the article is to present ideas about how to teach translation of specialised texts. Such a topic was dictated by the need to educate students in that particular kind of translation, as they are going to deal with a growing number of specialised texts to translate in their future work as translators. Such translations need to be carried out according to a scheduled process. The article, presenting its stages, may be a source of reference to teachers of specialised translation, and also to students. The proposed model of translation is based on analysing parallel texts. The texts are birth certificates in English and Polish, as they represent a concise form of specialised legal texts, on the basis of which the particular stages of translation seem easy to demonstrate. The analyses are performed according to criteria determined to be indispensable for carrying out a translation of specialised texts, among which are reference to layout, vocabulary, grammatical constructions and style of language.


specialised texts, codified texts, parallel texts, standardised form, formula, terminology, nominalisation, polysemy, internationalisms.

1. Introduction

Official documents, such as certificates of birth or marriage, are among the most often translated specialised texts because of their extensive public usefulness. They are classified as legal texts (Olpińska 2003:166; Pieńkos 2003:124) for at least two reasons. First of all, they are used for matters connected with law, like proving a subject’s identity or marital status, and are prepared most often in the form of sworn translations. Secondly, they share many typical formal characteristics of other legal documents and, at the same time, specialised texts.

The concise construction of a birth certificate gives a teacher an opportunity to show many typical features of legal texts to future translators in a clear way. That is why it was chosen as a sample to be analysed for this article. The aim of the article is not only to show the characteristics of birth certificates in Polish and English, but also to use this comparison to present consecutive steps in the translation process.
The primary concern of the article is to provide guidance for teachers and students on how to use parallel texts and produce a good translation.

2. Criteria for pre-translation text

The very first piece of advice the teacher should give the students ahead of any translation process, is to identify elements of a particular source text, which seem of fundamental significance for translation. Such identification, through the process of source text analysis, gives the translator an opportunity to produce the best possible translation, as most pitfalls to avoid can be highlighted in that way. In the case of a non-literary text, the translation of which requires strict precision to keep the one and only proper meaning of the original message, this search for best translation patterns would be particularly important, but how to find best solutions for identified translation problems is a different matter. This time the role of the teacher would be to show the students that one of the most commonly used and effective methods to find such right patterns of translation is through the comparison of parallel texts.

To give the students an idea of what a specialised text is, the first step the teacher should take is to have the students search for elements that are characteristic of the specialised text and thus would be particularly important for translation. This is possible through extensive practical study, but where the students are concerned, the teacher may help them find needed clues for constructive analyses in definitions and characteristics of specialised texts, given by different authors. On the basis of the definitions presented in the literature that the students have at their disposal, they can build up their knowledge on the issue and try to find the important features in a given text.

Through the literature study the students will learn that specialised texts use a special kind of language. Such a language of specialised knowledge (in English often referred to as LSP – language for special purposes) has its own technical lexicon, the fundamentals of which are a particular system of terminology, and specific rules of introducing terminological units into a text, namely its own cognitive syntax. The syntax of specialised texts should serve as a means to obtain clarity, univocal character and precision of thought.

As for the terminology, it is always based on specific terms, relevant to a particular field of science or technology. In general, a term is one word or a few words taken together, an abbreviation, or combination of (a) word(s) and symbol(s) that express different notions. Sufficient frequency of using a lexical unit in relation to a given notion has a decisive role in constituting a term. Terms are not charged emotionally. That is why diminutive or augmentative suffixes are not typical of specialised vocabulary in languages in which they are generally accepted. Multi-word and international terms (often with Greek or Latin roots), the same as neologisms, are also used.

As for the importance of terms in specialised texts, opinions are divided. Newmark states (2004: 5) that “terms usually consist of not more than 5% of the text’s vocabulary”. But, according to Arsentyeva (2003: 170-171):

Terms constitute 20-30% of the whole vocabulary of such texts […]. Terms always tend to be used in their primary logical meaning, as they indicate with precision a particular scientific concept and particular objects. Hence no problem of polysemy arises (with only some exceptions).
Neutral words constitute the majority of the vocabulary of scientific style (60-70%) with some proportion of common literary vocabulary, including such learned words as: approximately, respectively, indicate, in consequences of, etc. (about 10%).
Academic science and technology are also characterized by a high degree of nominalization, which finds its expression in the abundant use of nominal groups.

Nominalisation of scientific texts may be explained as the predominance of nouns and adjectives over verbs and adverbs and prepositions over conjunctions (Górnicz 2003:115).

As can be learnt from the above quotation from Arsentyeva, an important feature of specialised texts is creating overt meanings of text units without undertones (lack of polysemy), realised through consistent repetitions of once used terms, which always refer to the same notions.
Where syntax is concerned, the teacher should draw the students’ attention to its conciseness, often resulting in the introduction into a text of a symbol rather than terms repeated in extenso.

A typical feature of specialised texts is the extensive use of some grammatical structures, such as the passive voice with the verbs: suppose, assume, conclude, infer etc. (Arsentyeva 2003:171). In English it is much more frequent than in Slavic languages. It reflects the impersonal style of specialised texts. Participle structures, the use of the third person singular or plural, frequent performatives, such as: declare, confirm, commit, or consent verbs, like: permit and authorise are typical of legal texts especially. The same is true of the extensive use of modal verbs characteristic of contracts, as they regulate obligations, rights and prohibitions. On the other hand, some grammatical constructions, like imperatives, are not typical of specialised texts.

Clear division of the text into units is typical of the layout. Such text division is most characteristic of the so-called codified texts (e.g. a contract of employment, business contract, medical diagnosis, petition etc.), among which a birth certificate should also be placed. Codified texts are characterised by an officially stated and organised structure of their components. (See Zmarzer 2003:28). Each component is obligatory. Such components give the text the status of an official document and, at the same time, introduce the contents through the accepted vocabulary.

A specialised language will be realised in the scientific-technological style, mainly because of its professionally restricted range of vocabulary. But the language will be specialised not only because of the lexical layer, but also because of syntactic elements and grammatical constructions mentioned, characteristic of scientific style.
On the basis of the enumerated characteristics, elicited from the students in the didactic process, they should come to the conclusion that the parallel text analyses should be performed according to the following criteria:

  •  layout (text division, content of information, formulas),
  •  vocabulary (terminology, morphological features of typical vocabulary),
  •  grammar (typical grammatical structures, syntax),
  •  register (vocabulary and grammatical constructions used, communication strategies, overall – the stylistic features).
3. Analysis of parallel texts as a source of information on their patterns and common features

Having realised what criteria are relevant for analyses of specialised texts, the next step to take with the students should be carrying out the best possible analyses of both – a source text and a parallel text in a language into which we want to translate. The effect of those analyses will be discovering a set of features common for both texts, which can be used as the model for an adequate translation.

Comparing a Polish birth certificate, a standardised document entitled Odpis Zupełny Aktu Urodzenia (see Fig.1 in the Appendix), and different versions of British and American birth certificates (e.g. those from the State of Massachusetts, Suffolk County, Boston; Wandsworth District in the United Kingdom, pursuant to the Births and Deaths Registration Act, 1947, and Cambridgeshire District, County of Cambridgeshire and the Isle of Ely, pursuant to the Births and Deaths Registration Act, 1953 (see the Appendix, Fig.2, 3 and 4; Kierzkowska 1998:33, 36, 37), the students should easily notice that, as far as the layout is concerned, they are quite similar. The clear division of the texts into units is reached by the numbering of passages and the data within them, using tables, bold font, or capital letters. Analysing the contents it appears that a translator will come across such data as:

  •  country or district emblems,
  •  the name of the country, registration district or province,
  •  names and dates of acts according to which registration is performed,
  •  the seat of a registrar’s office,
  •  the number of the certificate,
  •  the place and the date of birth registration,
  •  the title of the document,
  •  information concerning the child: surname, first name, middle name, sex, date of birth, place of birth, birth specification (single, twin etc., order of births if twin),
  •  information concerning parents (usually clearly divided into two parts: for father and mother): surname, first name, middle name and maiden name for the mother, place of birth, residence at the child’s birth, parents’ occupation, age at the child’s birth,
  •  information concerning the person reporting the birth (name, address, relationship, signature and function of an informant or a certifier),
  •  additional remarks,
  •  signatures (of the registrar or another certifier and an informant) with the official phraseology used in certification,
  •  the place and date of document issue,
  •  stamps.

Having found the common elements, within the areas specified above, in both texts, a source text and a text in a target language into which the translator is going to translate, it is reasonable to imitate whatever can be imitated in the translation, using the patterns of the target language, matching the information from the source text. But to do it, the translator has to be precise and, apart from observing the presence of similar information, analyse the specifics of vocabulary used, grammar structures and stylistic features of a target text in order to create a good translation.
From the analyses of vocabulary in the certificates formerly mentioned, students will see that some of it will be obvious, like the vocabulary used for personal data or details concerning the place of birth registration (where proper names appear, such as for official names of countries or institutions, they should be checked against reference sources – encyclopedias, dictionaries, glossaries and other patterns gathered from comparable corpora etc.). But there will also be some vocabulary of a more terminological character. The teacher should alert the students to such terminology, so that it can be properly chosen. This time having parallel texts at one’s disposal is really invaluable. The teacher’s task in this respect is to find the terms that can prove troublesome for the students and to show them equivalent solutions in the text written in the target language. When translating a birth certificate from Polish into English such problematic terms could be: zupełny, in the expression odpis zupełny (meaning ‘complete’), zakład, in the expression dane dotyczące osoby (zakładu) zgłaszającej urodzenie (meaning ‘institution’), akt, in the expression akt urodzenia (meaning ‘certificate’) and znak, in the expression znak opłaty skarbowej (meaning ‘stamp duty’), as they have more than one meaning, and the students must be careful and consult the parallel texts and other sources to choose proper equivalents. On the English part such problematic words could be: act, in the expression the births and deaths registration act, (meaning ‘a decree of a legislative body’), sex (meaning ‘group of males or females collectively belonging to either group’), entry, in the expression the entry no. (meaning ‘item entered’), entered, in the expression name entered after registration (meaning ‘put into a list or record’) live, in the expression live birth (meaning ‘living’, ‘alive’), return, in the expression city or town making this return (meaning ‘formal statement or report’), order, in the expression order of birth (meaning ‘specified sequence’) and zip, in the expression zip code (meaning ’post code’). The teacher should also help the students choose the vocabulary which is of terminological character, according to how terms are understood in the literature on specialised texts (see section 2.), and treat such words as an absolutely necessary thing to bear in mind and incorporate into the translation. The terminology should be established on the basis of the parallel texts as far as possible. Terms in English, the meanings of which the students should memorise in order to perform a good translation of a birth certificate into Polish, would be: middle name (meaning ‘drugie imię’ and realised in Polish forms as ’imię (imiona)’), maiden surname (‘nazwisko panieńskie’), mailing address (‘adres do korespondencji’), certifications (‘poświadczenia’), certifier (‘osoba poświadczająca’), informant (‘osoba zgłaszająca urodzenie’), print or type name (‘nazwisko drukiem’), supplement filed (‘załączniki’), relationship (‘pokrewieństwo’), clerk or registrar (‘urzędnik lub urzędnik stanu cywilnego’ – in Polish forms – ‘Kierownik Urzędu Stanu Cywilnego’) and registration district (‘okręg zarejestrowania’, in the Polish standardised form – ‘Urząd Stanu Cywilnego w…’).
The problematic English expressions worth memorising, which may appear in birth certificates, would be: entry No. …in the Register of Births (‘treść aktu w księdze urodzeń’), in my custody (‘pod moim zwierzchnictwem’), the above particulars (‘powyższe szczegóły’), is liable to prosecution (‘podlega postępowaniu sądowemu’), pursuant to (‘zgodny z’), witness my hand (‘w mojej obecności’), residence of informant (‘miejsce zamieszkania osoby zgłaszającej urodzenie’) and certified copy (‘odpis (kopia) poświadczony’).

The equivalents of the following Polish terms from Odpis Zupełny Aktu Urodzenia in English would be: odpis (‘copy’), zupełny (‘complete’) akt urodzenia (‘birth certificate’), osoba zgłaszająca (‘informant’), Kierownik Urzędu Stanu Cywilnego (‘Principal Registrar’), nazwisko rodowe (if both parents are concerned – ‘patronymic name’, if just the mother – ‘maiden name’), siedziba zakładu (‘the institution’s seat’, or ‘address’), wzmianki dodatkowe (‘additional remarks’) and znaki opłaty skarbowej (‘stamp duty’).
The last issue with regard to vocabulary, to which the teacher should draw the students’ attention, is its character – official, formal, deprived of diminutions and colloquialisms. The students should keep that in mind, especially if they do not find a ready equivalent in a parallel text.
When it comes to grammar, one of the very first observations that will probably be made by the students is the conciseness of the contents and the rigid organisation of grammatical structures, mentioned among the characteristics of specialised texts. It is achieved by the predominance of noun structures or participles instead of full sentences. Most data is introduced through noun structures (surname, first name, middle name, maiden surname, occupation of father/mother, date of birth, sex, place of birth, registration district, name of hospital, signature, residence of informant, relationship, county, city or town, registered number, date etc.). The remaining information is very often given through participial structures. The examples in the Polish certificate are: Dane dotyczące dziecka/rodziców/osoby (zakładu) zgłaszającej urodzenie – ‘Data concerning the child/parents/a person (an institution) informing of a birth’ instead of Dane, które dotyczą – ‘Data which concern’. There are also impersonal structures like: Poświadcza się (‘One certifies’, that would be best translated as ‘This is to certify’) and Opłatę skarbową… pobrano (best translated into English as a passive structure – ‘The stamp duty… was charged’).

The English forms are on the one hand more concise than the Polish one. Instead of Data concerning a child/parents/a person (an institution) informing of a birth, in one of the forms (see Fig.2 in the Appendix; Kierzkowska 1998:33), there are simply sections entitled child, father, mother, certifier and informant, with appropriate particulars. The information concerning parents and a child is sometimes less systematic, put in table columns entitled: When and where born, Name, if any, Sex, Name and surname of father, Name, surname and maiden name of mother, Occupation of father and Signature, description and residence of informant (see Fig.4 in the Appendix; Kierzkowska 1998:37). Inclusion of data concerning parents may be completely ignored and the only information about a child is Name and Surname, Sex, Date of Birth and Place of Birth (see Fig.3 in the Appendix; Kierzkowska 1998:36). In these expressions we can also observe avoidance of grammatical words, such as articles (surname of father, maiden surname of mother, occupation of father, residence of informant or Specify order of birth). Sometimes even verb forms are omitted, as in If not in hospital, number & street, This birth single, twin etc., or If not single, born first, second etc. It is also typical to avoid finite verbs, like in City or town making this return, or in passive forms, to omit personal pronouns and the auxiliary be, like in When and where born, When registered, or Printed by authority of.

On the other hand though, instead of the Polish non-finite structure Poświadcza się zgodność – ‘This is to certify…’, there are full sentences in the English forms, like I certify that the information appearing above is true and correct, with an informant’s signature (see Fig.2 in the Appendix; Kierzkowska 1998:33), or I, …, Registrar of Births and Deaths for the Sub-district of…do hereby certify that the above particulars have been compiled from an entry in a Register in my custody. Witness my hand this…day of…19…, with the registrar’s signature (Registrar of Births and Deaths) (see Fig.3 in the Appendix; Kierzkowska 1998:36). The latter formula has its variants, like I, …, Registrar of Births and Deaths for the Sub-district of …, in the …, do hereby certify that this is a true copy of the entry No. … in the Register of Births for the said Sub-district, and that such Register is now legally in my custody. Witness my hand this … day of …, 19…, with the signature of the Registrar of Births and Deaths (see Fig.4 in the Appendix; Kierzkowska 1998:37). Another such form is the one Any person who (1) falsifies any of the particulars on this Certificate, or (2) uses a falsified certificate as true, knowing it to be false, is liable to Prosecution (see Fig.3 and 4 in the Appendix; Kierzkowska 1998:36, 37).

Among the most important features of grammar in the analysed certificates there is the use of imperative structures, untypical of specialised texts, but this time justifiable, or even normal, as the texts analysed are forms, which often need instructions to be included. There are such imperatives as Specify order of birth, Do not use mailing address, Present mailing address.

The last remaining point to teach the students, is the necessity to appraise the register of the text they are going to translate. The students should be able to see that all the texts analysed are written in an official, formal style. We can observe that the official style on the level of layout is kept by putting the texts into a formalised structure of elements, having, more or less, a comparable pattern in each variant (tables, similar headings).

On the level of vocabulary we can find no words which would be emotionally marked. There are no diminutive or augmentative suffixes. In the Polish form, when information about stamp duty is added, we can find the word znak (opłaty skarbowej). It sounds like an augmentative form of a colloquially used term znaczek - at the same time a name for a postal stamp, but those are two different words. There is no such situation that two different notions are referred to by the same term, or vice versa, which means that there is no polysemy. The terms are repeated consistently in relation to one and the same notion. Some words are internationalisms (of Latin origin) and are used in official or legal texts frequently (Polish: cywilny, akt; English: public, vital, certificate, residence, supplement, copy and informant). The next feature being typical of official style is using multi-word terms, which are also present in the texts analysed, e.g. Polish: nazwisko rodowe; English: maiden surname/name, full name, type, print name, public health, vital records, registered No., standard certificate, certified copy, falsified certificate, mailing address and registration district. There are also some official fossilised expressions used, like Witness my hand…, In my custody, I do hereby certify… and in Polish Poświadcza się zgodność (‘This is to certify the consistency…’). Even such typical information as the date is not expressed straightforwardly, but formally (This 21st day of December).

On the level of grammar, the style is no less official. There are very concise participle or noun structures instead of full sentences, which makes the texts official and gives them the character of forms - evident when imperative structures are incorporated. Communicative strategies used are then informative and directive. Impersonality of the texts is their common feature – as has already been pointed out, we can observe constant avoidance of finite verb and few full sentences are used with performatives, such as certify and falsify.

4. Methodological guidelines on translating official documents as a kind of specialised text

After text analyses, teaching the students some methodology of translation seems a necessary stage in the teacher’s instructions. Among theories concerning the translation of specialised texts, put forward to provide a methodical approach to that area of linguistic activity, there is the theory formulated by E. A. Nida (Leung 2001:2; Pieńkos 2003:64-65). Its most important element is the notion of 'equivalence'. There are two kinds of equivalence:

  •  formal equivalence – consisting in an attempt to express the content of a message and imitate its form, so that possibly exact equivalents of each notion and sentence of the original text could appear in the translation,
  •  dynamic equivalence – the idea of which is to express the uniformity of sense.

Pieńkos (2003:64-65) claims that formal equivalence appears in the translation of specialised texts more often than dynamic equivalence, as the most important elements of them are notions, expressed by terms, that constitute specific contents and must be incorporated into the translation. Kielar (1991:103) understands formal equivalence as following particular rules concerning the contents, form, style, function etc. On the one hand it requires retaining the features of the source text, but on the other hand – the translator should be aware of rules governing a target language. This idea is also mentioned by Christiane Nord (1995:264), who states that translation means not only changing the elements of an original text into equivalent ones in a target language, but much more – creating a target text minding its function. Also Kielar (2003:133) claims that what the translator should do is to express a sense of the text written in L1 through grammatical and lexical means of L2. Pieńkos (2003:268-274) proposes a transpositional model of translation, which retains the sense of a source text and, at the same time, follows the conventions of a target language within grammar, idioms and phrases.

When starting the process of translating a specialised text, students should realise that the first important thing to deal with is terminology, as it constitutes the crucial part of the text. But through the comparison of different language, they may meet with the following terminological variants (according to Dickel, 2003:143):  

  •  terms fully correspond to each other (congruence),
  •  notion A or B does not have an equivalent in the target language,
  •  terms A and B are only partially equivalent.

According to Dickel, in the last two cases the translator has the possibility of borrowing a term from a source language, coining a new one, or using an equivalent which serves as an explanation of the source language term. Stępnikowska (1998:53) mentions similar solutions in the case of zero equivalence. The translator can:

  •  use an original term and give its literal translation in brackets,
  •  introduce a definition or description of an original term,
  •  use a neologism.

What is important for the text unity and logic is the fact, emphasised by many theorists, that once used, the term should always denote the same notion.

When it comes to structural features of a specialised text, Lukszyn (2003:14-16) cites the following features of a good translation:

  •  retaining semantic unity of the source text in its translated version – by taking care of the so-called semantic dominants (a network of direct connections between central terminological units),
  •  keeping the normalised construction of a text (formally organised in a particular way),
  •  using proper chains of connectors – sequences of particular linguistic devices that keep the text unity, like as a result of, as the consequence of which etc. (in the case of the certificates analysed this is of little importance, as there are few full sentences in them),
  •  taking care of the unity by using typical sentences marking the beginning and the end of a text, like: In this way…, That is all to say about…etc. (of little use again in the case of the compared texts, as they are forms, deprived of such binding structures),
  •  minding proper text division by using formal connectors like separate paragraphs, or indexing following steps of argumentation.

Dickel (2003:146) claims that, when it is justified by the needs of a target language, the translator may change the structure of the text. She also gives some remarks concerning the style of language in specialised translation. According to her, each specialised text is characterised by a different level of technicality, and the translator’s task is to decide if the translation style should be more scientific rather than typical of general language. The translator must take care not to violate the conventions of a chosen style by using vocabulary, or other elements, characteristic of a different style.

5. Teacher’s guidance to students on best translation decisions

The final instructions the teacher may give the students, after the analyses of the parallel texts have been performed and the theoretical background for translating specialised texts presented, are prompts regarding what solutions the students might choose as their translation decisions.

Seeking possible translation solutions for a given specialised text would be best realised, as has been stated, through the comparison of parallel texts. The first thing students should know is that it is advisable to keep not only the contents of the source text in their translations, but also the pattern, and not to borrow more than necessary from the text in the target language, just using it to consult problematic ideas. Even if there is no obligation to follow the layout of the source text, it would be very reasonable to do that, as a reader could see the text as it really is in the original form, which is constructed in that way for good reason. It would also be good to follow the formula of the source text because, in the case of official documents, they may be presented as sworn translations and it would be best not to change their visual form too much, so that their character is retained.

When it comes to vocabulary, the suggestions shown in section 3 could be used as the decisions corresponding to the sense of words and expressions discovered through analysis. While translating sentence equivalents from Polish, the translator may use full sentences as their counterparts, just like it is in some English versions of the birth certificate, to follow the convention. The same advice applies to translating English sentences into Polish – they might be translated in the form of sentence equivalents.

The students should be warned to retain the register of the source text and to be sensitive to the reconstruction of all its measures, pointed out above, in the process of translation. It is as much important as finding proper equivalents of words and expressions, or using proper grammatical structures. Otherwise the translation would be of poor quality.

6. Concluding remarks

The proposed model of dealing with the translation of a specialised text was dictated by the need for a more didactic approach to the translation of specialised texts.

The aim of the article was to draw the translation teacher’s attention to the necessity of text analyses preceding the process of translation and give some references, presented by different authors. The approaches mentioned, together with the analyses, should prove the specificity of specialised texts to the students and develop the practice of special, reasonable treatment of such contents in the process of translation, with reference to parallel texts.

Thus it would be advisable for the teacher to get into the habit of performing specialised translations with the students according to the steps presented in the article, which are as follows:

  •  source text analysis as a means of identifying its characteristics and making the students aware of them,
  •  comparison of parallel texts to gain knowledge about the contents and typical features common to both texts, so as to find best translation solutions,
  •  consideration of terminology used in the translation,
  •  thoughts on treating grammar,
  •  control of the uniformity and suitability of style within the whole text,
  •  some methodological feedback on the part of the teacher, to inform the students how much their task accords with the features of good translation with regard to the terminology, structure and style.

Figure 1. Polish birth certificate – Odpis zupełny aktu urodzenia


Figure 2. Standard Certificate of Live Birth from the State of Massachusetts


Figure 3. British Certificate of Birth pursuant to the Births and Deaths Registration Act 1947

UK birth certificate

Figure 4. Certified copy of an Entry of Birth Pursuant to the Birth and Death Registration Act, 1953 from the Great Britain

UK birth certificate

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Edyta Źrałka – a PhD student at The Jagiellonian University in Cracow, The Unesco Chair for Translation Studies and Intercultural Communication, where she is working on her doctoral dissertation: Localisation of legal texts in Polish-English and English-Polish translations and its role in the translation didactics.  Her research interests include: translation of specialised – legal texts (theory and practice), localisation, translation pedagogy. She has been a sworn translator at the District Court in Cracow since 2003. E-mail: