Machine Translation, Translation, Translation Culture

Translation Essentials: Legal Translation Services

legal document service

Every translation genre is slightly different and requires a unique skill set from its translators. Some translation is quite straight-forward but requires precision, such as the translation of transcripts. Other areas require precision tied to creativity, such as transliterating birth certificates, driver’s licenses, diplomas, and the like when the sounds and letters of an alphabet do not match. Still other areas of translation, such as literature, go beyond the bounds of simple translation and enter the realm of art, as concepts foreign to the target language must be transcreated into understandable and meaningful text. Translating legal documents is a combination of all of these challenges.

Legal documents are often very specific in their requirements. A single change in format, spacing, or structure could negate the entire document or lead to costly delays. Mistranslation of a name or identity opens the door to legal challenges or lengthy court proceedings. It could even lead to a loss of a patent, business agreement, or contract. Yet, for as strict as legal requirements are in these areas of translation, legal translators must be masterful artists in transliteration, transcreation, and localization.

Each country has its own legal system. In some cases, different areas of the country may have differing legal concepts. Consider the Unites States where there is a set of overarching federal laws, but each of the 50 states has their own set of prescriptive laws. A contract which could not be written in one state could be written in another. In divorce, the division of marital property is different in each of the states, and rules on purchases, warranties, and consumer protection may even differ down the city or municipal level. This is why lawyers must be licensed in each state where they which to practice, and a lawyer wishing to practice federal law must have yet another certification. Compound these concepts on the international level where legal complexities are intertwined with linguistic and cultural dissimilarities, and you start to get an understanding of the tremendous challenges that define legal translation.

Sylvia A. Smith, author of “Culture Clash: Anglo-American Case Law and German Civil Law in Translation,” noted that successful legal translation must possess four competencies: a basic knowledge of the source and target legal systems, fluency in the source and target languages, an understanding of all relevant terminology, and the ability to write in the specific legal writing style of the target language. A failure in any of these four areas will likely lead to the production of a document that is inaccurate, not comprehensible, or that does not effectively meet the requisite requirements and intentions of the document.

For example, the translator must understand the document’s purpose. Is the document being used for a source-text, is it an informational document, is it a contract, perhaps it is being used as evidence in a court case? The purpose determines the formality of the language and terminology, the formatting of the document, the phraseology, whether it needs to be certified or not, as well as a plethora of other considerations. When you consider all of the different documents encompassed under the umbrella of legal translation (birth certificates, application letters, patents, depositions, financial statements, evidence documents, inheritances, adoption papers, marriage and divorce papers, contracts, etc.) it becomes evident why the selection of an expert legal translation agency is so essential.

In legal translation, source documents are created in a source text rooted in a legal system of one culture. Yet, the translator must prepare these documents in a way that a person reading the text in the target language will not only understand the original intent of the document, but understand the way that it relates to the legal system of the target culture. Two of the most challenging aspects of this task are dealing with linguistic structures that may not exist in the target language and explaining legal concepts that are non-existent in the target culture.

Significantly complicating the process of legal translation are strict timelines. Despite the many challenges of the translation itself, time is an essential element of most legal processes. Documents that are not provided in time may be voided. This could cost the client a patent, a contract, a business deal, etc. In other words, the consequences of missing a deadline are vast and extremely consequential.

Legal documents are typically confidential. This means that while it may be tempting to farm out parts of the documents to freelancers or other translation providers in order to meet timelines, documents may be bound by very strict confidentiality agreements. When choosing a legal translation service, it is important to verify the steps the agency has taken to ensure the safety and confidentiality of your information. Additionally, the service should provide a secure way to transfer and store the documents, as electronic transfer and storage have their own sets of security challenges.

Note that different areas of the world have different rules about confidentiality as well. A U.K. court recently ruled that translations of documents are not originals so they do not have the same protections with regards to legal disclosures. The constant changes in legal precedents in any one area of law can be challenging, to keep up with changes in multiple areas and in several locations of the world takes a very special legal translator.

Even the tone of a legal document can be important. Most legal documents presented in English are written in an active voice. If the target language and culture prefer a passive voice, this requires significant restructuring of sentences and concepts.

While there are many challenges to legal translation, the good news is that there are agencies with a proven track record of excellence. Knowing what to look for will help you effectively evaluate these agencies and ensure you receive the products you require.


  1. yuvashri

    Great information about this i really enjoy to read this

  2. Jack

    I totally agree that legal document translation is a work of precision and sincerity as it involves the legal terms and conditions of the particular country. But the most important thing is to convey the content in the right format and by the professionals.

  3. ramnathanfitness

    Nice post

  4. ramnathanfitness . All type of services available such as bankruptcy and other type of legal documents.

  5. ramnathanfitness

    Legal document translation services are available for low cost at Semanticevolution.

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