Despite what we may see in television dramas like Law and Order, the most important part of the legal system isn’t in the courtroom: it’s in the paperwork. Today, as multilingual populations increase and companies seek to expand globally, legal document translation is more in demand than ever. Legal translation is also a high-stakes field where mistakes can be costly or even life-threatening, so obtaining a high-quality translation is essential.
Let’s review some of the key factors to consider when legal document translation is required.
What types of legal document translation exist?
The first crucial factor is what sort of document needs translation and for what specific legal context. For example, some of the most common types of legal document for businesses include contracts, patents (and other intellectual property documents), confidentiality agreements, licenses, and more, ranging across international law, tax law, maritime law, and many others. Translating these documents will likely require a legal translator who is not only certified, but also an expert in the vocabulary of a specific subfield.
Other types of documents are used in legal settings themselves, such as court proceedings, witness depositions, police reports, motions, or briefs. Our everyday lives also rely on legal documentation that includes birth certificates, marriage licenses, leases, wills, and more. The nature of the project and its audience will help determine other key elements of your translation needs, such as cost and turnaround time.
What are the challenges of legal translation?
Due to the complex nature of the law, this type of translation also comes with a number of unique challenges. Legal jargon can be extremely difficult to translate due to the stilted, obscure nature of “legalese” as well as its unique syntax. In English, for example, most legal documents are written in the passive voice, which can lead to potential issues if the target language primarily uses the active voice.
Likewise, legal vocabulary is full of potential pitfalls; in one Virginia case, a live courtroom interpreter misused the Spanish word violación (rape) to translate the English word “violation”—referring to a minor traffic violation—with near-disastrous impact. Even translating a single vocabulary word or placing a punctuation mark in a certain way can radically change the interpretation of a document.
Also, context is key. For international translation, this means the translator must be well versed in a minimum of two different legal systems and multiple style guides. Moreover, the law is constantly changing, so translation requires keeping up with a variety of policy and formatting changes.
What qualities to look for in a legal translator
While you might be tempted to ask, “Can I translate my own legal documents?”, the ramifications of a legal mistake mean this is not the time to do it yourself. In fact, in some countries, only expert translators—translators sworn in by government authorities and examined by rigorous tests—are allowed to translate official documents.
Therefore, it’s essential to find a translator with stellar credentials that will allow them to meet all the necessary requirements. You should also look for an experienced translation services provider with rigorous confidentiality practices, subject-specific accuracy, and extensive, up-to-date knowledge about the relevant legal field.