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Why legal documents must be professionally translated

By Rowena Smyth, 

You may remember the story of the 2011 legal dispute between a Chinese maritime company and one of its foreign partners who failed to use a professional translation service for legal documentation? We mentioned it in an earlier blog on legal translation, but the point is that this partner allegedly used students for their legal translation instead of a professional translation service in an effort to save money. Who would argue that if your legal translation ends up in Shanghai Maritime Court, you have not chosen well?

What can go wrong?

In the case of the maritime companies, misinterpretation led to mistranslation. “Drydocking” was mistranslated as “tank washing” and “except fuel used for domestic service” was mistranslated as “except fuel used for domestic flights.”

The key culprits of mistranslation are words with multiple meanings: namely homonyms (which are spelled and pronounced the same but have different meanings) and homographs (which are spelled the same but pronounced differently and have different meanings). 

Take the multiple possibilities for the homonym “crane”, for example. It can mean different things in these three sentences: 

  1. “The brand is based on the founder’s favourite bird, the crane”, which could easily be a sentence on company website. 
  2. “I was forced to crane my neck to check if there was a car coming”, which you might find in a witness statement. 
  3. “We agree to put the camera on a crane to film this scene” – a sentence you may find in a film or TV contract. 

And take the word “does”, which is a homograph. It could mean: “he does commit to this compensation plan” or “the bucks and does must be secured beforehand”. Choose the wrong meaning and your translation will mean something completely different, and potentially cause problems down the line. 

These wonderful nuances of language make it imperative to use a professional human translator who knows both the language and both (or all) countries’ legal speak. So you must  avoid machine translation for legal documents and, as I hope we demonstrated earlier, unqualified students. 

Professional legal translation is a must for these documents

Legal translation isn’t confined to law firms or large corporations. Global marketing and sales teams responsible for providing and/or publishing terms and conditions on websites or printed materials should always use a professional translation service with legal expertise. 

But any document that will be used in the legal system in a different language is very likely to require professional legal translation. I’ve already mentioned a few, above, but legal documents that require a professional translation service include but are not exclusive to: 

  • CD or tape recordings
  • Contracts
  • Filed patents
  • Financial documents
  • Legal rulings and precedents
  • Transcripts
  • Witness statements

What regulations govern legal translators?

In many countries, legal translation services are governed by strict regulations. 

Legal translators operating in Argentina and Brazil, for example, must be state-certified. In Sweden and the Netherlands, legal translators must swear an oath and undergo central regulation and examination. If they want to translate official documentation, legal translators in Sweden and the Netherlands must also gain authorization from the Foreign Office. Linguists who translate legal documents in Italy must seek certification for each document from a legal professional. In the UK, however, translators do not require any accreditations to classify as a legal translator.

What skills must a professional legal translator have?

For the best possible outcome, you want your translator’s mother tongue to be the destination language. They need to know both languages so intricately that they can make the exact legal point made in the source materials. Legal language is by its very nature incongruous, steeped in centuries of culture and history, particular to the region and society. Your translator must have a firm grip on both sets of history and society, so they can appreciate each slight nuance in the legal language. 

There will be instances when an equivalent translation doesn’t exist in the target language and a literal translation won’t make sense. A good legal translator may then have to define the legal concept, paraphrasing in sentences what the source text took mere words to say. 

As well as being an excellent linguist, a skilled legal translator must also be an excellent writer. They need to be able to master two distinct sets of syntactic structures, grammar and enormous vocabularies and legal terms.

If you’d like to find out about how our legal experts can help you, please get in touch.

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