Classic sci-fi short story, can remember everything but the title. Almost certainly from the 50s or so.

A guy invents a device that translates legal documents into plain English. He uses it on his next contract, realizes it's the traditional "We own your every thought" nightmare, refuses to sign it.

After using it for a short time, a large legal firm offers to buy it for a good price. After making sure the contract is fair, he sells, wondering why they'd need such a device. He never thought to check, but the device also works in reverse - they can feed in one page of plain English and get out a contract that'd put the Devil himself to shame.

Likely read in an anthology from the SF BookClub many many years ago. Probably included other funny classics like A Subway Named Mobius and The Third Level.


  • 9
    No clue about the story, but I sure could use such a device. Need one for translating political speak too.
    – Chindraba
    May 3, 2018 at 14:25
  • 8
    I have no idea, but I want to read this story too, now
    – Paul TIKI
    May 3, 2018 at 15:41
  • 1
    I was unable to find any collection that included both the "Subway" and "Level" stories :( May 3, 2018 at 22:39
  • 2
    I feel like I should ask if this is in scope. But I won't. I think we can all agree that a machine that translates legalese to plain language is indeed science fiction. Aug 22, 2018 at 1:08
  • 3
    I seem to recall a story that was published in Omni magazine which had a similar invention. He was able to fire his lawyer because he no longer needed his services (he was going through a divorce at the time). He and his partner ventured to sell the invention to the federal government. Their response had to be run through the machine, which generated the statement, "Sell us the invention and we pay you a megabuck a year for life. Refuse, and we toss you in jail and throw away the key."
    – EvilSnack
    Sep 29, 2018 at 18:58

1 Answer 1


I'm about ready to bet a pig's butt to a C-note that it is

"The Language Clarifier" by Paul J. Nahin

... and aiming to find out. Unlike some answered stories, this one is being difficult to find and read again today to make sure. (Or add those demanded and coveted block-quotes from 30 years back in memory.)

This one was indeed in Omni.

Searching cross-library loans to read it again after decades, I witness in amazement that this powerful story has not been reprinted more.

From the Archive.org copy:

The idea for the invention came during the divorce. He knew he was going to be screwed, but with the legal mumbo jumbo of the separation agreements, he couldn’t figure out how he was being screwed. Janet's damn lawyer had drawn them up — he'd even given the go-ahead for that, as he hadn’t planned to contest her. After all, he had been caught in a rather blatant, clear-cut position of adultery. At the time, he had thought the wild-passioned honey- blonde had been worth it, but now he was beginning to have doubts.


"Well— all right, I do just happen to have a test problem ready," So saying, Sam walked over to his desk, rolled afresh piece of heavy white bond paper into his type- writer; and quickly snapped out in bold pica letters; Liquid precipitation fell from the heights, followed by the spherical solid version, with the process terminated by the reverse transport in the gaseous state.

Sam took the sheet over to the machine, and with an expression that was a mixture of glee and apprehension, held it up to the INPUT slot. "Ready, Willard?’’ At the nod of his friend's head. Sam pushed the paper in. After only a few seconds, another piece of paper shot from the output slot. Both men grabbed it in midair, and together read: First it rained, then it hailed, and fi- nally the water evaporated.

"Well, I'll be damned'" they exclaimed in unison. The Language Clarifier worked.


Sam leaned back in his chair with a pleased smile on his face. "Willard, my boy, there's an old rule of thumb in physics that says if a process works in one direction, it will almost always be true that it can go the other way, too.”

Then Willard understood. "You don't mean, you couldn't possibly mean — "

"Yep, that's right, I just moved a couple of wires around, and now old Shyster just stuffs his clearly written book draft into the OUTPUT slot, and the most incomprehensible muddle you could possibly imagine emerges from the input slot. Should be a legal best-seller."

They think they can make a bundle selling it to Defense Research and Engineering at the Pentagon, but they get a negative answer in legalese. Feeding it into their prototype machine:

Sign the agreement, forget you ever heard of the Language Clarifier, and you get a megabuck a year for life. Don't sign the agreement, and they toss you in the slammer and throw away the key.

Sam lives in Hawaii now, retired from teaching, and is writing a book on the physics of hanging ten. Willard quit teaching, too, married Susan, and 1 would be indelicate to discuss what they are doing. Once a year they meet in San Francisco, split the million bucks, have a few drinks at Fisherman's Wharf, and ride the cablecar.

Oh, yes, Sam was right. Old Shyster's book was a best-seller, thus proving you don’t have to be smart to get paid a million bucks for forgetting what you know, and doing nothing.

Quite often, merely being a fathead lawyer is sufficient.

  • 1
    gasp Holy cow, The Language Clarifier and me reunited at last. It's been way too long. May 17, 2019 at 18:56
  • 2
    It sure seems like this is it to me. It even includes the part about running in reverse, putting plaintext in and getting legalese out. Good job, +1 May 17, 2019 at 19:02
  • 1
    @OrganicMarble: Right you are. Quotes copied in.
    – FuzzyBoots
    May 17, 2019 at 19:22
  • 1
    I'm declaring this the winner - any discrepancies I'm ascribing to my incomplete recollection. May 19, 2019 at 22:42

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