Shall or will?

A series of articles about translating from Serbian (and other languages) into English – No 11 Shall or will?

Recently, I translated a simple sentence that said: ‘The company expects its suppliers to conform to…(certain standards)’. The client called and said: “Can’t we say: ‘The company shall expect its suppliers…’. It makes it so much more formal, more forceful, like in a law!”

I had to disagree. But I had difficulty persuading the client, who spoke good English. It occurred to me that English writers often misuse this form too. Let’s look at where it comes from.

The standard English rule for a future tense is ʻshallʼ in the first person, ʻwillʼ in others, so: ‘I or we shall do this, he/she/it/you/they will do it’: a simple statement of expectations.

If this is inverted, it expresses intention or determination: ʻI will succeed’ (despite the difficulties), ʻYou shall do this!ʼ (or you will be shot). Except in the first person, it is a kind of order from the writer to someone else. But watch out who is ordering whom to do what.

Laws often use ʻshallʼ as an order (by the lawgivers) to someone do something. E.g. ʻThe Ministry shall publish the required regulations within 3 months of the entry into force of this law.ʼ (If only). This is an order from the lawgivers to the ministry. But ‘This law will enter into force (or just ʻ…enters into force…ʼ) on the day of its publishing’ – this is simply a fact, and does not need the ‘shall’ which, if used, would be an order from the lawgivers to the law itself. (Note that in EU legislation you will often find ‘shall enter…’. I think it’s daft.)

Similarly, if a law on amendments to a law says that a paragraph is changed, then it’s changed. Saying that the paragraph shall be changed suggests that anyone reading and obeying the law in the future has to start changing paragraphs.

A company announcement to its staff said: ʻFirma će uspostavljati politiku upravljanja…ʼ (The company will establish a management policy…). If you write ʻThe company shall…ʼ, you express a determination, but not the company’s. You express the fact that you (the announcement author) are ordering the company to do something, which is not the case: it is the company informing its staff what it is going to do – no order is appropriate, even if you can surmise that a determination to enforce the policy exists on the company’s part.

When the future tense is used in Serbian, English sometimes gives you alternatives. E.g. ʻHSE će biti prirodan i integrisani deo poslovne kultureʼ – ʻHSE is to be a natural part of company cultureʼ, a simple statement of how the future is likely to pan out, with a gentle but clear touch of determination. Using ʻshallʼ is here again inappropriate.

More examples:

Wrong: This law shall regulate the rights and obligations of…

Right: This law regulates the rights and obligations of…

Why: You can’t order a law to do anything. This is a simple description of what the law applies to.

Right: For the purposes of this law, the services referred to in paragraph 2 of this Article are considered as professional services…

Why: This is a simple description of the meaning of some terms for the purposes of this law.

Right-ish but not brilliant: For the purposes of this law, the services referred to in paragraph 2 of this Article shall be considered as professional services…

Why: This is an implicit order to anyone reading the law to consider these services in this way. This is really not necessary, because if it says so in the law, then of course any law-abiding person shall consider them in this way.

A variant we often see: ‘They shall be obliged to…ʼ. This is a double effect. ʻThey shallʼ or ‘they are obliged to’ is quite enough for an order (unless you really want to emphasize that they are obliged on pain of being burned at the stake to be compelled to have the duty to be forced to have the obligation to have to do whatever it is).

But: ‘they shall not be obliged to do thisʼ (unspecified persons are ordered not to oblige them to do it, so they can please themselves whether they do) is completely different from ‘they shall not do itʼ (they may not do it under any circumstances).

As with most translation, adjusting these expressions is the work of a good editor. This is one reason why the ISO standard for translation (ISO17100) requires a separate reviser to ensure a high quality translation job.

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