The views on legal translation often suffer the same misconceptions as do those about translation in general. Written translation in real-time is an almost impossible thing. This is even truer with something so complex as legal matters. In many countries, it takes quite a number of years to master any aspect of legal studies. Even a few more years of hands-on work experience to be able to handle legal cases. A legal translator needs no lesser qualifications.

As Translator’s Thoughts, correctly points out, “it is a very specialized sector in translation services that requires care and attention to details. Just like medical translation, legal translation involves lives and a haphazardly done translation can end in serious problems for the clients, the law firm and other parties.”

This means that a translator handling legal translation needs to have detailed experience in the field. Maybe even a legal background herself/himself. More often than not, the translation of legal documents requires that she/he has regular consultations with a lawyer/legal expert. Preferably, this should be the one working on the specific document.

Legal translators “have to ensure that the meaning of one piece of text is accurately conveyed as much in a new language. Moreover, every nuance of the original document has to be captured and repurposed – without any loss of integrity – so that it is understood, legally speaking, in the target language.”

That would require the translator working on a legal translation to “master the basic concepts and terminology of not just law, but also the area to which it is being applied. Legal translation is at the heart of multilingual communication. It enables individuals, companies, legal and government agencies to communicate across different languages and cultures within and across state borders.”

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This post was updated in May 2021

What constitutes legal translation?

A legal translator has to go a few steps further than just translating a text from one language to another. The same European Union document notes, “legal translation requires knowledge of specialist terminology and knowledge of the linguistic conventions that are used in related documents.” This means that a legal translator should not only have “commanding knowledge” of the legal language and terminology in his native tongue, but also in the language he is translating from.

The variety and complexity of legal texts and documents are one of the largest that any translator needs to tackle. As notes, legal translation can include identity documentation, financial documents, official reports, transcripts, filed patents, precedents and legal rulings and witness statements. It also includes immigration documents, litigation papers, articles of incorporation, wills, and trusts.

The list does not end there. Often legal documents, say written expert witness statements, cross into other areas. These include international politics, cultural backgrounds, psychological profiles, and others. Even if the main content of these documents covers another field of expertise, a legal translator needs to present and include them in a legal context.

In the United States and the UK do not have strict regulations concerning the work of legal translators. That is not the case in many other countries. In some Latin American countries (Argentina, Brazil), legal translators have to be sworn by the state. On the other hand, in some European countries (Spain, Sweden) legal translators have to swear legal oaths.

To all that, there is a special procedure for certified translation, a specific branch of legal translation. There, certified translators have an obligation to accept responsibility for the accuracy of the documents they translate. They do this with their signature and a special seal.

Legal Translator Translation Official Translator

Key problems when translating legal documents

With the translation in general proper localization is one of the key requirements. This would mean that the translator has to be fully aware of a number of elements. These include the cultural, political and other specifics of the country of the target language. With legal translation, there is an added hurdle that a translator needs to handle.

Practically every country in the world has its own legal system with its own specifics. These specifics can differ even if the legal system in any given country falls into a more general category such as customary or civil law. Add to that the legal provisions that govern international organizations (say, UN, EU, NATO). Also, international conventions these countries belong to that have their own specific. The case that some international legal institutions like international criminal courts combine the elements of both customary and civil law, further adds to the complexity of legal translation.

Besides this, there is a standard linguistic hurdle that legal translators have to conquer, and that is the one Omniglot reminds of – “the linguistic structures of the source language might not have direct equivalents in the target language.” For a legal translator, that puzzle becomes additionally complex, even if the legal systems of the countries correspond. They are almost never the same. “The structure of the source text follows that of the target culture. The target text, on the other hand, will be read by another person that is familiar with another language and legal system.”

Add deadlines to all that. Elsewhere, if a translation is late by a bit, or a deadline can be extended. In legal translation often minutes count. This is particularly true of courtroom situations when a judge or a panel of judges can proclaim a  late document null and void.

What legal translator clients should look for?

When it comes to the things possible clients should seek from legal translators the first thing that comes to mind is quality. In legal translation, the key elements are preciseness and exactness. In legal translation, the concept of translating word for word does not work. As Omniglot rightfully notes, legal translator “must be part detective, legal scholar, and linguist.” The amount of research work that he does needs to be “done to be able to decode the source and write its actual meaning that will never, in any circumstances, deviate from the originating content, even if an exact translation is not possible.”

For potential clients to get the quality legal translation they would need to check the credentials of the translation agency or freelance legal translator. Checking out how the agency or the translator handle possible errors in translations is quite crucial. A potential client can check this through reputable translation industry organizations. In the U.S. that could be the American Translators Association (ATA).

One of the elements potential clients should look at is whether the potential legal translator has adequate legal background and/or experience. The priority there is on the background and experience dealing with legal matters in the target language. Still, no less important is the level of background and experience with the legal matters in the source language too.

It is also necessary to consider some technical elements connected to legal translation. One is responsiveness to urgent requests and timely delivery of translated documents. Another is the technical savvy of the agency or legal translator. Keeping up to date with the advancements in software terminology bases is most pronounced with legal translations. Of course, no potential client is going to overlook the asking price for a translation job.

Legal Translator Translation Person Receiving the Translation

There is more a legal translator has to do than just translate

A former colleague legal translator jokingly said on one occasion. “I wish I could finally finish all these other things so I could rest a bit while actually translating.” He might have exaggerated a bit. But, this comment indicates that there is much more a legal translator has to do to be able to come up with a quality translation.

One is to constantly be up to date with the legal regulations, both in the country of source and target language. That includes updating his specialist legal dictionaries in both languages. Languages that have compound words like German or Dutch come up with a new mono language dictionary every year. This is particularly the case with legal dictionaries.

Secondly, he has to constantly update, or be in constant contact with the person who takes care of terminology databases. These are essential for correct and precise legal translations. Legal and medical terminology databases were probably the first to exist as such. Even from the times, these were in the form of handwritten notebooks.

Then come all those elements a ‘regular’ translator to work on and consider. That particularly concerns all the elements of localizing the content, from linguistic, to cultural, political and legal specifics.

With a legal translator, there is always that added element of legal consequences of every and each legal document. As “Language Connect” puts it, in a legal translation, “every nuance of the original document has to be captured and repurposed – without any loss of integrity – so that it is understood, legally speaking, in the target language. It’s a serious job that is challenging but extremely rewarding.”

That is why it is also essential for the potential client to be fully aware of what a legal translator does. That is the best way to get the best possible service from a legal translator or agency.

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