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What exactly is legal translation and how does it work?

By Josian Phillips, 

The sensitive nature of legal documents, and their importance within the legal realm, means they must only be translated by specialist and experienced linguists.

What is legal translation?

Legal translation deals with texts within legal systems, all which vary from country to country.
The process requires a translator’s mastery of both languages, and in-depth knowledge of both legal systems. Only then will the translation of legal expressions be accurate and natural.

Law is culture-dependent, so – as with technical document translation – the linguist must understand the ‘legal speak’ to recreate the documents. Every legal system has grown from the use of different legal expressions, all of which are unique within that jurisdiction.

Adding to this complexity, there are also different laws which apply to various areas such as media, technology, finance, and manufacturing.

For these reasons, a simple translation of a legal document is not possible.

The precise correspondence of legally binding rights and duties in the source text is crucial. There is no room for error as mistakes can lead to lengthy delays, or more seriously, lawsuits and financial losses.

What documents require legal translation?

Legal translation is often required by international institutions, global companies, law firms and court registries.
Any documents which will be used within the legal system in a different language to the original may need legal translation. These could include:

  • witness statements
  • legal rulings and precedents
  • filed patents
  • transcripts
  • official reports
  • financial documents
  • contracts
  • CD or tape recordings

There are also a wide range of other texts, such as a practising certificate or script, which also sit under the umbrella term ‘legal document’.

However, legal translations are not just confided to law firms or large corporations. Legal text can be found in terms and condition of a website for example, or in brochures and sales catalogues.  As a rule of thumb, any documents which are involved in legal proceedings could need legal translation, even if they are not legal documents themselves – such as birth certificates and passports.

But it’s not all run of the mill. Some types of possible legal document translation can be exciting: think celebrity football players’ contracts and multi-millionaires’ offshore assets.

Will human translators be needed?

Yes, human translation should always be chosen over machine translation for legal documents.

The level of accuracy required means professional human linguists are crucial for the process of legal translation.

Some translations require highly technical knowledge of a subject area. The level of specific and specialised topics, and context-dependent language, means a machine translator will not suffice for legal documents.

The translator also needs to be informed about the purpose of the document, which could influence the translation.Although advancing, machines certainly aren’t at the level yet where they could take this type of context into account.

For example, is the document only needed for the general public, or is it going to be legally binding text?

Regulations for legal translators

Unlike a simple translator, there are rules and regulations which legal translators must follow.

Some countries require state-certified translators for legal translation, including Argentina and Brazil.
Spain, Sweden and the Netherlands require linguists to partake in ‘sworn translation’. This means legal translators swear legal oaths, and are centrally regulated and examined. This is to ensure that their translations are proficient. They are then authorised by the Foreign Office so they can translate official documents.

Countries like Italy require a legal professional to certify all legal translations. These precautions and requirements display the importance of legal translation to be nothing but accurate.

The United Kingdom, on the other hand, doesn’t require the translator to have an accreditation to classify as a legal translator.

Why you should always consult a professional

If you put your source legal text into professional hands, you shouldn’t have any problems.

But incorrect translations of legal documents happen often, with serious consequences.

For example, in 2011 translation errors ignited legal disputes between major maritime companies. A contract between a Chinese company and its foreign partners mistranslated “drydocking” as “tank washing” and “except fuel used for domestic service” was misinterpreted as “except fuel used for domestic flights”.

The errors appeared in the contract terms when translated to Chinese from English and the case was even taken to the Shanghai Maritime Court. Allegedly, the contracts were translated by students, in an effort to save money.

How long does legal translation take?

To ensure that you have the most technical and accurate translation around, you’re going to have to allow plenty of time.

A translation of a contract could only take a day or so, but a whole case file could take a week or two or even more for large commercial law cases where thousands of documents may need translating.

First, choose a translation partner which has experience in translating legal documents in the source and target language, and can translate both languages perfectly. This combination will then produce the most accurate legal translations.

If the source text is part of a high-profile or sensitive case, the translator may also need to be security cleared.
You need to work these processes into your timeframe, so you’re that you have all documents translated on time.

When it comes to legal translation, look to the professionals. Here at Brightlines, we are the experts you can trust.

Get a quick quote or call us today on 01225 580 770 to find out how we can help you.

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