Everything You Should Know About Legal Document Translations

Last Updated On: February 15, 2019

inTranslation Tips

Legal documents are complex as they are made up of often complicated text which uses a language that is unique to that particular genre. To make it even more difficult for translators, legal language isn’t normally the same in different countries. This creates difficulties for legal document translators to provide accurate translations.  One thing anyone who needs to have a legal document translated should remember is that it takes more time to produce an authentic legal translation than many other different types of translations.

Here are some key facts you should know about legal document translations

  • First of all, the legal translator you choose should have an academic legal background and a thorough knowledge of their own country’s legal system and the one of their second language.
  • Today the translating of legal documents is a priority for businesses who wish to be involved in the importing or exporting of goods.
  • Legal documents aren’t only used in court cases. Translations are required by businesses which trade overseas for such things as business contracts, warranty documents and the terms & conditions of a website.
  • If legal documents are translated into other languages, it’s essential the meaning in the document is not altered at all. Even small changes may have catastrophic consequences which could lead to the business losing its credibility.
  • Legal documents, when translated, must conform to the culture and legal system where the legal document will be used.
  • Linguistic structures in use in the source language may not have identical equivalents in the targeted language. For example, an English legal document is typically written using the passive voice often consisting of many complex and long sentences. When a legal translation takes place into a language that focuses on the active voice, confusions could arise.
  • The tone of a legal document is part of its effect, so it’s important that the legal translator keeps to the same tone.
  • Laws don’t always stay the same so translators have to be able to keep up with any changes. This is often the situation in common law when precedents are set. The legal translator needs to keep up-to-date with any legal developments.
  • Legal translations need to be precise with no chance of ambiguity. Any slip up with even a punctuation mark could lead to a dangerous misunderstanding. Punctuation isn’t always used in quite the same way in all languages. A legal translator needs to know the unique punctuation rules of the two languages.
  • Legal translators need to be more careful when translating legal documents when it comes to confidentiality. If a legal translation for business gets into the wrong hands’ confidential information may find its way into the hands of individuals who could jeopardize the success of the business.

Examples of legal documents that are commonly translated

A legal document could be any of the following:


    I agree to the Privacy Policy and the Collection Notice under the Australian Privacy Act.

    • a contract.
    • a corporate or government proposal.
    • a court transcript.
    • a confidential agreement.
    • a law.
    • a witness’s statement.
    • a regulation.
    • a will and testament.
    • a birth certificate.
    • a bank investment deposit certificate.
    • an immigration document.
    • a notarized document.

    Useful points for any type of legal document translation

    1. If you need to get a legal document translated, the source document should be presented in such a way that the legal translator can understand it.
    2. The source document should be structured clearly and organized so that the resulting translated legal document can be similarly completed.
    3. If you have no legal knowledge yourself, consulting with a lawyer will ensure that you present the source document in an easily manageable way
    4. Before submitting your legal document for translation, ensure you tell the translator where and how the legal document will be used.
    5. When translating legal documents, this must always be done with accuracy in mind and should adhere to the writing style expected for a legal document. Even the slightest mistake may lead to a decision being made. For example, the decision may be made in a court, which might not have taken place if the error hadn’t been made in the first place.

    The tools used by legal translators

    Legal translators cannot provide accurate translations without help from the resources that are available. As well as multilingual and monolingual law dictionaries, there are other resources available to legal translators such as online databases which feature case law and legislation, legal textbooks, corpora and current translations of codes. Using these resources means the translator has to compare the laws related to both the source and target languages.

    Stefanos Vlachopoulos, author of ‘The translation of legal texts. To what extent can functionality be creative?’ (2013) admits that a legal translator faces many challenges, including the lack of symmetry across different legal systems, the relative nature of legal terminology, inconsistency with classifications and categorizations between different fields and branches of law.

    It is not necessarily expected that a legal translator should have the same knowledge of the law as a qualified lawyer, but it is essential any legal translator should have adequate legal knowledge so that legal documents can be categorized and put into the right context. A legal translation is really all about comparative law and getting the required legal context just right.

    Not all legal translations can be completed using dictionaries alone

    Dictionaries may have the words, but they don’t often show enough examples of the words in context. Fortunately, the rise of electronic dictionaries has changed all that as they provide a lot more context. However, it’s quite rare that one legal system in a single country is exactly the same as any other. This means it takes a lot of brainstorming before the best legal translation of a document emerges.

    When using a multilingual dictionary to translate into the U.S. or British English, even some of the legal terminology shared in English may not have quite the same meaning as the U.S. context. If this is the case the translator needs to indicate that no equivalent word can be found when translating a specific word. Sometimes, a monolingual law dictionary needs to be used by the translator. This will offer a better explanation with examples of specific legal concepts. The translator has to work through the various meanings and choose the one relevant to the specific legal translation.

    Online resources can be a great help to a legal translator

    Multilingual databases provide a huge amount of useful information and terminology. They have been added to over time and changes in meanings of any legal terminology can be discovered. As a last resort, a legal translator can turn to academic articles that research and explain the uses of legal terminology and terms that often are difficult to accurately translate.

    Finally, without a doubt, legal translations are the most difficult to undertake. This is due, in part, to the fact that inaccuracies just aren’t permissible as there is too much at stake if a legal document is mistranslated and doesn’t provide the right translation of the source document. Legal translators have to put in much more time than other document translators as so much is dependent on their skills to provide that precise translation.

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