Guest post – Legal translation…Why faster isn’t always better

guest bookToday I am very excited to share with you a post that, in my opinion, really sums up a great deal of best practice when buying legal translation.

The post is by Cynthia Hazleton, J.D., who is licensed to practice law in Ohio, and also has two Master’s Degrees – one in French, and one in French Translation. Cynthia has worked in the translation departments of Ernst & Young and the French Ministry of Justice, both in Paris. She teaches French Legal, Commercial and Diplomatic Translation at Kent State University, USA, and also has her own legal translation business.

Over to you Cynthia!

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Better Be Prompt!It has happened to all of us. Your litigation team is involved with an international case. You’ve been focusing on the issues for months and the trial date is fast approaching. You think everything is in order, when suddenly you realize that one of the documents isn’t written in English. You rush to the Internet, type in “Legal Translation,” and find scores of translation agencies, all advertising that their turnaround time is just a day or so. One even boasts, “Translation at the Speed of the Internet!”

You choose an agency – probably the one at the top of the list – send off the document to be translated, and breathe a sigh of relief. Whew, dodged a bullet! But did you?

Legal translation is not something that most people consciously think about. Before you send your document out to a large agency that promises a speedy return of the translation, it’s a good idea to know what really happens to your document once it leaves your computer.

Some commonly held misconceptions about translation

  • You just “run the document through your computer” and then print out the translation
  • There is special computer software that automatically translates from one language to another
  • Anyone who took a foreign language in high school or college can translate
  • All you need is a dictionary to translate
  • Any bilingual person can translate
  • There’s a website that translates sentences as you type them.

binaryTranslation is not accomplished by “running a document through a computer.” That may work in science fiction novels, but there is currently no such software on the market.

There is software to aid translators, but it doesn’t translate anything. The program stores the translation as the translator types it. If the same terminology appears later in the document, the word or words will appear as an option for the translator to use again. The context will allow the translator to choose whether or not the word or words will fit into a specific context. This assures consistency within the document, but the actual translation must be done by a living, breathing human being.

firstfrenchIf you think anyone who took a foreign language in school can translate, take one of your legal documents in English and try to translate a sentence or two into the language you studied 20 years ago. Unless you’ve been speaking that language every day, you probably don’t remember much beyond the days of the week and how to count to ten. Would you trust yourself to translate that document for court?

Some believe that all it takes is a good dictionary to be a translator. wordforwordWhile it’s true that you can look up one word after another and string them together to form a sentence, you’ll end up with the kind of language we all laugh at when we read translated instruction manuals:

  • With waste metal parts, keep away from small children to prevent from some injuries by them
  •  The bolt of screw is not of left or write.
  • It is your duty as compulsion things.

Being bilingual is no guarantee of producing an accurate and professional translation. Many Americans have grandparents who speak two languages, but most lawyers would probably not turn to them to translate an 80-page document for litigation purposes. specialitesTranslators need a solid comprehension of the subject matter. For this reason, professional translators limit their work to one or two fields. Some only translate medical documents. Others specialize in engineering, legal, financial, IT or patent translation.

In the same way an attorney who specializes in intellectual property law wouldn’t take a criminal case, professional translators only work in their strongest field. To do otherwise can result in an unreliable, possibly inaccurate translation.

The worst misconception about translation is that there are websites that translate sentences as you type them in. While it is true that machine translation is now possible, the results are not always dependable, particularly with the complex structures of sentences in legal documents. Here is an example of such a machine translation. The first version was done by Google Translate, the second by a professional legal translator:



8 Steps to Determining if a Translation Agency Is Right for You

If you decide to use a translation agency, here’s a checklist to assure that you’ll get the best possible translation of your document:

1. Ask how your translation job gets assigned. Ask the Project Manager (PM) if the agency sends out a mass e-mail to everyone on its database who works in the two languages required for your translation. If so, you may not get a translator with the proper background or training to understand a legal text.

2. Ask the PM how the confidentiality of your document will be protected during the job assignment phase. Since many legal documents contain private information like names, home addresses, bank account identifiers and social security numbers, emailing such information to a large number of potential translators could have disastrous results.

3. Ask if the agency has a list of translators who specialize in legal translation. For the same reason that attorneys specialize in one field, a translator who specializes in legal translation will produce a better translation than someone who accepts any job that comes along, regardless of the field. Using a translator who has legal training and/or legal translation experience is especially critical if you’re dealing with a case involving both the Common and Civil law systems. Some select agencies send legal documents to translators whom they know have either a law degree or experience in legal translation. Most do not. Ask the PM if a specialized legal translator is available for your job.

4. Ask if the agency requires its freelancers to be either trained/experienced in translation or their field of specialization, or if they are certified by the American Translators Association. Unlike attorneys, there is no state or national licensing requirement for translators, so anyone can call him or herself a translator. Ask the Project Manager if he or she can provide a translator who has a translation degree or several years of legal translation experience.

5. Ask what the translator’s native language is. There is an unwritten code in the translation industry that translators should always translate into their native language, because we are always strongest in that language. Your translation will read smoothly and won’t “sound like a translation” if it’s translated by a native speaker.

6. Ask where the translator is located. The English dialects spoken in the U.S., Canada, England, India and Australia vary widely. The same is true for the French spoken in France, Québec, the Caribbean, Switzerland and Africa. Or the Spanish spoken in Spain, Mexico and Puerto Rico. The translator should be a native speaker of the target language, preferably living in the country where your translation will be read.

7. Ask if the translation will be edited. Regardless of how carefully a translator works, it is always prudent to have a translation edited. Ask the PM if your translation will be edited by a second translator. Be clear that you want it edited (the translation is checked against the source document for accuracy), not just proofread (the translation is read over to find typos, formatting errors and spelling mistakes, but it is not compared with the source document). Proofreading cannot find, for example, that a paragraph was skipped or a number was transposed.

8. Ask what happens if your translation is a “rush job.” This creates a serious problem for the Project Manager, as he or she has to find multiple translators who will each translate a portion of your document, in order to get it back by your deadline. If your document cannot be translated by one single translator, ask how many different people will be working on it. Ask how they will coordinate the terminology among themselves. Inconsistent terminology between the various portions of the translation may ultimately create a problem for your client – and for you. One translator may use “contract”, and second may use “agreement”, and a third may use “understanding.”

By sending your legal document to a translation agency, you may get your translation back overnight, but it will have been read and translated by numerous people, living all over the world. And any hope of consistency or confidentiality will have been lost.

Is there a better way to find a legal translator?

proThe best way to be assured of getting a well- translated document is to work directly with a professional translator. You can ask international law colleagues for the names of professional translators they use. Or you can go to the website of the American Translator’s Association (, where you can enter the language combination you need, as well as the specialization. Once the list appears, you can then select a translator whose qualifications match your needs.

qualityThere is one caveat, however. If you choose to hire a professional legal translator, you’ll have to arrange for the translation several days before you need it. A professional translator can translate between 1,500 and 2,000 words per day, depending on how much research is needed for terminology verification. If you are organized enough to send the source document in advance of your deadline, the result will be well worth it. Your document will be translated by one translator, guaranteeing terminology consistency and confidentiality. When your global business requires the translation of documents, accuracy and experience count. It is in your best interest to compile a list of professional translators to whom you can turn for this important service.

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6 thoughts on “Guest post – Legal translation…Why faster isn’t always better

  1. If there is anyone who is a great legal translator and who can offer invaluable advice on the subject, it is Cynthia Hazelton. I make that statement on the basis of having collaborated with her more than once on legal translations.

  2. Right on the money, on all counts. Impossible to state the issue more clearly than that. I absolutely rule on your favor :=). Let us hope that many prospective legal translation buyers read it and truly act upon it!

  3. Pingback: July-August 2014 digest | From Words to Deeds: translation & the law

  4. Pingback: Posts of the Day – July 2014 | Tranix Translation & Proof-Editing Services

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