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What is a Legal Translation? Not What You May Think. 

As a lawyer, or if you work in the legal field, you may have come across the need for a legal translation. What does this entail and mean exactly? Well, that really depends. In today’s global economy and world of multicultural nations, legal translations are becoming more and more common.  Legal translation requests span almost all the different subspecialties of the law including, but not limited to, immigration, commercial litigation, patent and trademarks, family law, technology law, criminal, health care, human resources, worker’s comp and government/administrative law.

One would think a legal translation is a legal translation.  This is just not the case given the vast differences in subject matter, accuracy requirements, timing issues, volume of work and cost constraints. 

Let’s look at some examples. Let’s take, for instance, an immigration filing for a visa. In this case, there are government requirements that mandate certain documents be translated in their entirety. This can mean thousands of pages of financial documents, bank statements and other required information. Depending on how the translation is managed, this can be a very lengthy and very costly proposition. There lies the rub. With the correct understanding of the purpose of the translation, use of appropriate technology and human resources, you can get a cost-effective, highly accurate translation produced in a short period of time.  

What is the difference? Simply: purpose and constraints.  Having a contract translated versus having financial documents translated not only take different skill sets from the linguist’s point of view but also a different set of technology tools to aid the process. Going back to our example of an immigration filing, my recommendation would be to find a way to leverage the best of technology (including scanning/OCR, translation memories and translation management software) to be able to convert large volumes of documents into very manageable, cost- and time-effective projects.

Whereas a 1,000-page patent may take weeks to translate correctly, a 1,000-page immigration document can be done in a couple of days at a fraction of the cost with the same level of accuracy given, again, the purpose and constraints. 

So, let’s take a closer look to make this a bit more meaningful of a post.  Here are the key components and factors we consider for every legal translation:

  1. What is the purpose? Again, knowing what the translation is going to be used for ultimately is a big factor in how we structure and price a project. If you have a tight budget, large volumes of work and a short deadline, there are options such as using OCR/scanning technology and translation technology coupled with human editing.  If the project requires not only a high level of readability but also of verified accuracy, you may want to pay for what is called a back translation (where the translated document is translated back by a different translator to the original language, so your legal staff can review the translated version vs. the original version). This is often used in the healthcare industry, where an error in a translation can cost hundreds of millions of dollars or even worse, someone’s life. Another element that is often necessary when it comes to legal translations is a certificate where the translator provides a statement vouching for the accuracy of the content.
  2. What are the time limits of your project? A great translation is not so great when it is not turned in on time when there’s a filing deadline. Sometimes speed is a key element, in which case you need to use technology and highly trained linguists to reduce the time needed to produce a quality document.
  3. What are your budget constraints? In some cases, money is no object and the job needs to get done well.  This is why some translation companies get away with charging 50-100% more for the same translation. Lawyers and law firms do not want to take any chances.  But on the other side of that is the reality of the cost of translations, which can be high (especially if you are paying 2x market rates).  Law firms and lawyers still have to control costs, and there is a need for a balance between trust and value. This is why we do not take a one-size-fits all approach to our legal translations and work with our clients to define the best way to manage each project. Sometimes, the extra money spent on more quality controls is well worth the money. Other times it is not. That is the reality.  It’s about balance, and each project needs to be assessed individually.

Whether you work with us or another company, it is important for you to know that not all legal translations are the same, and that there are many options available in terms of quality levels, cost and turnaround time.