What exactly is legal translation?

In the article below I wanted to provide some insights into the arcane world of the legal translator. The aim was to have some kind of go-to text that I could send people who have no idea what the profession is all about.

I hope readers will find it useful – some may find it informative depending on their backgrounds, and I would encourage any readers who feel that it could help to raise others’ awareness to share the post liberally. It’s all about roaring, don’t forget! 😉

What exactly does Legal Translation mean?

Basically, legal translation means taking a legal text in one language and producing a legal text in another language.

People sometimes confuse it with legal interpreting, which involves listening to legal discussions in one language, for example in live court proceedings or when a law firm is advising an international client in their office, and rendering spoken words in the other language.

Translation may also be an umbrella word used by those not familiar with the subject to mean both translation and interpreting. Confused?!

What’s a legal translator?

So, a legal translator works on written legal texts.

What does the work involve?

If you’ve never tried to translate a legal text, you might think it’s just a question of replacing one word by another. Not at all!

Professional legal translators need to reflect, accurately, a natural language – say English – in another language, for example French.

They also need to transpose the legal concepts in the text. No simple affair! Each legal system has grown out of different traditions, and legal expressions mean something very specific within that jurisdiction. Try to explain ‘habeas corpus’ to a French person and you’ll see the problem! Or worse still, ‘equity’. 🙂

But that’s not all! Each type of legal text has a special kind of language. We call this the ‘genre’. Think about how the language of legislation differs from the language of a contract for example. If the reader – e.g. a lawyer or a judge – sees that the wrong words have been chosen, they won’t trust the text that has been produced.

Last but not least by any means, the legal translator needs information about the purpose of the translated text. Is it to inform the general public? Is it a legally binding text in the new language? This information will be essential for them to produce a text that is ‘fit-for-purpose’.

Where does it happen?

Most people think that legal translation happens at international institutions like the United Nations or the European Commission. Of course that’s true, but actually far more work is commissioned by companies, law firms or court registries.

What kind of texts get translated?

Let me give you a few examples. Agreements and other corporate documents often need translating. Either because a company wants to import or export products, or because it is setting up a subsidiary in another country. Then we have disputes. The lawyers’ written submissions need translating when the adverse party uses another language. When people move abroad, they need translations of their personal ID, exam certificates, etc.

Can the work be exciting?

Oh yes! Think about all those wealthy individuals with offshore assets. You’d be surprised how many times legal translation is involved. Or documents for G20 meetings. Or a celebrity footballer’s contract.

Why is important to work with a professional?

I guess we can compare it to medicine. The law is pretty important to most people’s lives, just as their health is. Would you ask just anyone to operate on you? 🙂 The same applies to legal documents. It never fails to amaze me how some firms say things like ‘oh it’s OK, my secretary speaks a bit of German, s/he can translate it’.

How can you become a legal translator?

The skills required are considerable: language to a bilingual standard, or even trilingual, experience of two or more legal systems, specialisation in certain areas of law, not to mention high-level research skills.

People enter the career from different points. Some may live abroad for several years to acquire the level of language required, or be lucky enough to be born into a multilingual family. And then study law. Or they may do their legal studies first, and then move abroad to hone their language. Then you need to study translation. It’s certainly not enough just to speak the language – you need to learn a whole range of techniques and strategies. Some people even go into the profession from a specialist field such as engineering – for example patent translators.

In view of the growing need for legal translation (about 28% each year,¹ and the need to professionalise (see above – ‘my secretary can do it’!), we are starting to see tailor-made qualifications appearing rather than people acquiring the skills through three or four different university degrees.

What does the future hold?

Specialised translation is a real growth area. Of course people use technology such as Google Translate for things like travelling.

But we are so far away from the levels of reliability² needed in the legal field (and medical³ for that matter).

When you think that even just the position of a comma might completely change the outcome of a case, who would take the risk?



[1] PricewaterhouseCoopers, ‘Translation Bureau Benchmarking and Comparative Analysis Final Report’ (2012), and Common Sense Advisory annual report ‘The Language Services Market’ (2015). Approximate total worldwide $20 billion per year.
[2] We are starting to see court cases involving machine translation. In T 1343/12 Dust adsorbing oil/UNI-CHARM, European Patent Office decision, an ambiguous machine translation “presented the opportunity for two plausible, but completely opposite, conclusions”; and commenters held that regardless of cost and even where it was not that party’s responsibility to provide it, a human translation was far preferable. D Smyth, R Barker and T Belcher, ‘Rage against the (translation) machine’ (2015) 10 JILIP, 153,154.
[3] The mistranslation of a single word – a false cognate ‘intoxicado’ – led to a young man being left paraplegic and a settlement of $71 million. CB Ross, ‘Clogged Conduits: A Defendant’s Right to Confront His Translated Statements’ (2014) 8 U Chi L Rev.

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