Discover the challenges legal translation poses and common pitfalls to avoid. At Montero Language Services, our team of in-house legal experts has you covered.

Legal translation is much more than translating text. It’s about accuracy, precision, and consistency. In other words:

  • Conveying the exact meaning of the original document.
  • Avoiding any ambiguity.
  • Using uniform terminology to maintain clarity.

You might wonder, “Don’t these principles apply to all translations?” While they do, legal translation has an added layer of complexity. Judicial systems vary across countries, and mastering legal terminology doesn’t come easily.

In this blog post, we’ll explore common challenges in legal translation and provide tips to avoid them.

What’s legal translation?

It’s the process of converting documents from one language to another for use in legal or official settings. It’s a specialized field requiring a deep understanding of the legal systems involved.

What types of documents may require legal translation?

The list is long, including but not limited to:

  • Contracts: Business contracts, partnership agreements, and employment contracts.
  • Legal proceedings: Court documents, witness statements, and legal notices.
  • Corporate documents: Articles of incorporation, bylaws, and shareholder agreements.
  • Intellectual property: Patents, trademarks, and copyright registrations.
  • Financial documents: Tax returns, financial statements, and audit reports.
  • Immigration documents: Visas, residency permits, and work permits.
  • Regulatory documents: Compliance reports, licenses, and permits.
  • Insurance documents: Policies, claims, and settlement agreements.

Examples of situations that call for legal translation

A common misconception is that legal translation is limited to business scenarios. Far from it! Check out these examples of everyday life.

  • Students completing a master’s degree abroad have their diplomas translated for recognition back home.
  • International couples need their wedding certificate translated for the same purpose: legal recognition.
  • Immigrants pursuing citizenship must provide translated birth certificates and residency permits.

What challenges does legal translation pose?

Let’s look into some difficulties you may face when translating legal and official texts.

  • Jurisdiction-related challenges 

Legal documents vary in format depending on the country. Translators must adapt content to align with the legal framework of the target jurisdiction to ensure legal validity.

And let’s not forget that legal systems are rooted in a country’s history, traditions, and values. This cultural foundation results in legal terms having unique meanings specific to each culture.

  •  Untranslatable legal concepts

Consider a legal case involving a same-sex couple who married in Australia but now lives in China. In Australia, same-sex marriage is legal. So, their marriage certificate states they are spouses. But China doesn’t recognize same-sex marriages.

A word-for-word translation of “spouse” wouldn’t work in the Chinese legal context. As a result, the translator has to find a way to convey the notion of a same-sex marriage within the target legal framework.

  • Limited access to specialized tools

Regular dictionaries and translation software are not enough when translating legal documents. You need up-to-date legal terminology resources.

Such specialized dictionaries and legal definition databases are not easy to come by and can be expensive.

  • Mixing style guides

Style guides are sets of rules for formatting, terminology, and writing style. Some are specific to a particular legal system or institution, such as:

    • The Bluebook: A Uniform System of Citation – widely used guide for legal citation formats in the US.
    • The Interinstitutional Style Guide (ISG) and the Joint Practical Guide for the drafting of EU legislation (JPD) – formatting and drafting principles for EU legal documents.

Mixing guides can result in translations not meeting formatting standards expected in legal contexts. This could lead to rejection or questioning of the documents.

Mixing these guides can lead to translations that fail to meet legal formatting standards. This could result in document rejection or questioning.

  • Not using a glossary

A glossary acts as a shared dictionary for your legal projects. It outlines your organization’s preferred translations for key legal terms and phrases. Not using one can lead to inconsistent translations. Even more so when several translators are involved.

And let’s not forget that laws, codes, and policies evolve over time. Without a glossary, your translations risk becoming outdated.

3 pitfalls you may fall into when hiring translation services

  1. Hiring the wrong translator

Legal translation demands a deep understanding of the legal systems, terminology, and nuances of both the source and target languages.

Engaging a translator without the necessary legal expertise can cause your translations to be legally incorrect.

  1. Relying on machine translation (MT) for legal documents

MT has come a long way, but it still falls short in several areas critical for legal translation, such as:

  • Reading into cultural context.
  • Mastering specialized terminology.
  • Understanding different legal frameworks.

Let’s say that MT can be handy for quick, informal translations. But it’s not suitable for legally binding documents.

  1. Ignoring confidentiality

Would you trust online translation tools with your business content or customer data? Would you be comfortable with your sensitive data being sent to a foreign cloud server? We’d like to think the answer is NO.

Confidentiality is non-negotiable in legal translations. That’s why working with a language service provider (LSP) that prioritizes data protection is crucial.

Best practices of LSPs specializing in legal translation

  1. Relying on subject matter expert translators.
  2. Communicating with clients to clarify any ambiguities regarding the source document.
  3. Developing a glossary of legal terms and industry-specific terminology.
  4. Implementing a robust proofreading and editing process.
  5. Staying up-to-date with the latest translation technologies.

Sounds too good to be true? At Montero Language Services we implement these practices every day. As a result, our team of 30 in-house legal translators delivers flawless translations time after time. Contact us today for a free consultation.

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