All things legal formally fall under social studies. But, many professionals agree that when it comes to translating legal documents things get very technical. “In the legal industry, perhaps more than in any other, professional translations are necessary to ensure understanding and avoid significant potential liability associated with inaccurate information or misleading translations.“ 

In practically all instances, translating legal texts and documents word-for-word will take you to a wrong path. Legal texts are often hard to understand to most laymen even in their native language. Inaccurate or wrong translation of legal documents makes them unintelligible even to legal professionals.

Where lies the key challenge? A professional translator of legal documents. “A professional translator must be able to compare dual legal systems and languages to provide an accurate translation. Failing to translate legal documents and terms correctly can have significant adverse consequences.” (above)

Translating legal documents requires not only knowledge of two or more legal systems and their social milieu. It also requires, time, patience and constant involvement of a human translator. Machine translation can only help in few aspects, like maintaining thorough terminology databases.

Of course, it is possible that a legal person, a lawyer with a thorough knowledge of two or more languages can do the job. But then, what would be her/his rates? That is where a professional translation agency or a translator with a detailed legal knowledge comes in.

Translating Legal Documents for language localization

As Omniglot points out, there are many things that need a legal translation. These include “birth certificates, application letters, technical patent confirmation, deposition records, financial statement, evidence documents, litigation materials, and business contracts.” Legal translators “birth certificates, application letters, technical patent confirmation, deposition records, financial statement, evidence documents, litigation materials, and business contracts.”

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This post has been updated in October 2021. 

Translating legal documents and its challenges

In legal translation, “it’s like walking around in quicksand and legal translators must be careful of where they step.” Here, this language service provider points out to five challenges that legal translators face:

  • the difference between legal systems from country to country;
  • constant changes in different legal systems;
  • the legal translation leaves very little room to flexibility;
  • syntax and punctuation require attention to detail;
  • legal translators have very strict deadlines.

One thing legal translation does not tolerate is ambiguity. But the difference and details of specific legal systems create the possibility for ambiguities. A legal translator should not only know all the variations and similarities between the source and target language, but also the source and target legal system.

“Experts should be aware of the existence of terms with no equivalent or with multiple equivalents in the target language. They should also be trained to identify the correct usage of every term depending on the context, to avoid misunderstandings.

Without proper knowledge of the legal terminology, translators are very likely to leave room for interpretation. This can easily cause later disputes, with many possible consequences on the client’s resources and reputation.”

One of the characteristics of practically any legal system is that they constantly keep changing. “Templates and guidelines that worked a month or a week ago may not be relevant by the time you reach your deadlines.” For that reason, legal translators need to stay informed about all the nuances and changes in at least two legal systems.

They also need to constantly update their translation terminology databases.

As mentioned, legal language is often “a language within language”. Legal professionals often use terms “that even native speakers barely understand and often misuse. “ But, even a bigger problem is the fact that legal terminology is quite rigid and leaves very little space to flexibility in translation.

More challenges

Translators are always required to “interpret the source document and understand the meaning behind it.” But when there is little room for flexibility, like when translating legal documents. “creativity passes to a second place.”

The trickiest part of translating legal documents lies in their syntax. Also, most of these documents use what’s called “wooden language”–a series of pompous and ambiguous words that make the material hard to read. (above)

Where lies the problem? Legal documents are often riddled with the use of passive voice. Not exactly the material for online search engines. Also, sentences are often long and complex. Having three or four sentences combined into one seems to be a standard. That means a lot of commas, apostrophes, semicolons. And then come references and footnotes and endnotes. In short, a true nightmare, even for a seasoned professional!

And yet, in legal documents, it is essential that the translation has to abide by the same rules as the original. Changing syntax so that the document might be easier to read simply won’t do, There are only two options for legal translators here. One is a detailed proofread and the other is a translation check by a local legal specialist.

Then, there is the question of deadlines. Often, in any other form of translation, there is at least some wiggle room with deadlines. That wiggle room might be small, but it can still exist. With translating legal documents that possibility is practically non-existent. Courtrooms or corporate actions have strict timescales. It is often a case that a judge would proclaim a document/translation null and void because it did not arrive at a precisely set time.

Which documents require legal translation?

The array of documents that require legal translation often goes beyond what strictly falls under the term of legal. Of course, the first thing that comes to mind is legal documents ‘proper’, such as lawyers’ submissions, court decisions, judgments, and transcripts. That also includes all the evidentiary material, even though it is not strictly ‘legal’. This could be, for example, expert witness statements of doctors, academic researchers in other fields and similar.

But there is a long line of documents that seemingly do not fall under the legal banner. And all of those should be handled by a translator that has legal expertise.

  • Financial reports – this includes documents that show details about a company’s financials. Many businesses have international offices or need to submit financial documentation if they are negotiating an international contract.
  • Licenses and certificates – operating business in another country often requires an array of legal documentation that requires translation.
  • Diplomas, educational transcripts and proof of employment – studying in another country always requires that any diplomas and educational transcripts have an adequate, legalized translation. The same applies to proof of employment or previous employment records.
  • All immigration documents. Any international relocation, be it temporary or permanent requires legal translation. Having a legal translator at least review the necessary documentation is a minimal prerequisite. Very often, there is something that needs to be added or re-done.

Translating Legal Documents for language localization

  • Corporate documents – as International Language Services notes, “corporate documents that contain important instructions, privacy policies, employee benefits, and terms and conditions should absolutely be translated by an expert. Internal transparency regarding the legal documentation that affects your employees encourages compliance in addition to growth and camaraderie.”

Points to always have in mind when translating legal documents

All this indicates that translating legal documents is both demanding and challenging. What then, would be the points to have in mind when dealing with legal language translations?

UK service provider Creative Wordsums them up as follows:

Clarity & accuracy – ensure the original document is accurate and well structured. Translating from a document that has any errors will only compound those mistakes. The document translation should be structured in accordance with the requirements of the target language legal system.

Terminology – can vary depending upon location, and language. There are instances when laws have no comparable term or law, so a valid alternative must be found. Using a specialist translation team should help alleviate these issues.

Validation – some documents may require validation. It is essential to ensure that the translation team has the required accreditation for the task. If clients are unsure, they should check with lawyers in the target audience country as this can be invaluable in saving both time, and money.

Purpose of translation – it is vital to understand the purpose of the translation. This should be done before commencing any work as there may be specific rules, or laws, concerning translation for your purpose. The tone of voice, grammar, connotation, and so on, are all implied by the purpose of translation particulars.

Specialists – legal language translation is easier through the use of specialist providers. Potential translator or translators have to be masters of both law and language before they take on any legal translation. Getting it wrong can be a costly mistake. Clients should always select a translation provider that has available expert translators who specialize in a specific purpose. This could be, for example, family law, corporate law, or immigration.

All this indicates that translating legal documents has serious challenges that need to be overcome.

Find the right translator for you today at Bunny Studio!