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Legal translations: getting it right

Updated: Dec 18, 2023

Why are legal translations different?

Legal translation
Legal translation require specialist knowledge

Legal translation comes with a plethora of challenges which only an experienced legal translator will tackle successfully. Granted, this normally comes at a premium. But the cost of a cheap legal translation is, ironically, even dearer and you may soon regret cutting corners.

So, what are the challenges of translating a legal document? What do you need to look for in your language provider to make sure they are handled appropriately? Here is my take on this sensitive topic:

Understanding the fundamentals and the compatibilities of two different legal systems

Each nation has its own way of keeping the peace, be it in a civil or criminal context. Before tackling a translation, a competent legal translator will look to understand the context and objectives of your document. They will take into account the purpose of each clause, phrase or sentence and its implications in a different system. This involves a lot of prior knowledge and much research, hence the relatively high cost of legal translations.

Think of how much time your lawyers or legal team have spent reflecting on how to phrase every element of your T&Cs, how much back and fourth has led to a final consensus, how many opinions were asked. Your legal translator needs to read between the lines and understand all the nuances and find ways to either convey them into the target language or explain why you can't do it in their native country and offer alternatives.

In case it had crossed your mind, this is serioulsy no job for an AI translation...

Knowing how to adapt a concept

When a concept exists in both countries, the way forward is relatively obvious. A legal translation becomes more complex when a concept is only partially equivalent, or when it doesn’t exist at all in the target text.

Legal translators make use of various strategies in order to adapt concepts which have little or no equivalences in the target law. These may include paraphrasing, neologisms, footnotes, or relying on theories such as the ones offered by Sarcevic (which only relies on functional equivalence if there is no exact equivalence) or Skopos (which defines a translation as a text achieving the same purpose as the original one). There’s a reason legal translator is a profession, rather than something you entrust to your sister-in-law because she has a GCSE French.

How will you know if a legal translation achieves the right purpose?

Assuming all is done well, you won’t. If you do, something is wrong. This is why it is vital, to protect the reputation and the future of your business or enterprise, that you rely on a qualified and experienced legal translator. As a starting point, look for credentials covering the field of law in either languages.


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