There’s nothing simple about translating something into another language.
This is especially true when you’re dealing with complex, specialist subject matter — even more so when the cost of making a mistake is so great.
This is exactly the case when it comes to the translation of legal documentation. For texts within the realm of the law, perfection isn’t a ‘nice to have’ — it’s most often an absolute necessity. When conveying legal meanings and arguments, there’s scarcely any space whatsoever for ambiguity or deviance from intended meaning.
A single linguistic misstep risks blasting a big hole in the integrity, accuracy and authenticity of your documentation. So, on this topic, let’s explore the various aspects of translation for the legal realm — what it is, why it’s so challenging and what makes expert translators absolutely critical to the task at hand.
Firstly, what is legal translation?
It involves the rendering of texts that are legal in nature from one language into another. Such documentation encompasses an unbelievably broad and diverse range of work.
A non-exhaustive list of legal translations we’ve worked on includes…
- Claim forms
- Patents, trademarks and copyrights
- Family law documents
- Witness statements
- Judicial transcripts
- Court papers
- Judgments and decrees
- Merger and acquisition documents
- Conveyancing and property disputes
- General laws
- Sales deeds
- Articles of association
- Due diligence
Legal: a case for an expert translator
Why is legal translation important?
In an increasingly globalised world, the demand for legal translation is growing rapidly. Documents used for legal purposes are usually required to be submitted in the official language of the relevant jurisdiction, which means without legal translation, we’d certainly be in a spot of bother.
Many businesses and public organisations depend on the ready availability of high-quality legal translation services, as does the everyday operation and function of legal systems. The global legal industry is highly complex and heavily regulated, with laws often differing substantially from jurisdiction to jurisdiction.
The importance of quality legal translation is also down to the need for pinpoint, watertight accuracy. A comprehensive understanding of intricate, often niche subject matter is essential — which brings us onto our next point.
What makes legal translation so challenging?
In legal texts, effectively and concisely communicating your intended meaning is crucial; throwing translation into the mix adds another layer of complexity. Authenticity is key.
Simply put, legal translators are very, very highly skilled. As well as in-depth linguistic proficiency with the languages concerned, a legal translator needs to have a strong command of relevant legal systems and specific areas of the law. This includes familiarity with vast, complex terminology and jargon. ‘Legal speak’ is sometimes seen as a language of its own!
A word, phrase or concept that exists in one language may not have a direct equivalent in another tongue, so conveying meaning can often become very challenging. This requires a strong understanding of relevant legal sub-areas — sometimes of specific laws. A firm grasp of technical documentation is crucial, too.
With culture informing laws and codes of practice, legal translation can sometimes require a very nuanced and sensitive approach. In Saudi Arabia, for example, the legal system is organised around Islamic laws, but has increasingly incorporated secular codes to facilitate international business. Needless to say, a good legal translator needs this cultural sensitivity and awareness.
It’s not just legal, linguistic and cultural mastery, either. Speed is often crucial for legal translation, which means that these people need to be qualified, trained and efficient in the art of translation as a profession. This means familiarity with translation software, the ability to execute a translation, effective liaison with project managers, and so on — essentially, everything that comes with being a professional translator!
But can’t a machine do it?
In recent years, much has been made of machine translation. With non-stop technological advances in all walks of life, it’s completely understandable to think that software has been developed that is able to match — or even exceed — the standard of a professional human translator.
It’s not so simple, for all of the reasons we outlined above.
Whilst machine translation technology may become helpful for the processing of straightforward, uncomplicated work (by the way, we’d always recommend that a native linguist takes care of your translations, regardless of complexity), when it comes to fields that demand highly-specialised, localised knowledge and skill sets, there’s no substitute for an expert human translator.
Indeed, it can be unhelpful to see translation through the lens of machine versus man — software is able to assist expert linguists in their translation work. But the prospect of a machine having the sophistication to produce an authentic legal translation is extremely far-fetched.
A qualified human who is a native speaker of the language you want to target, with direct experience in your legal area, will be able to provide a level of quality and unambiguity that no machine has any prospect of matching — at least for a very long time!
The danger of ambiguity in law
You can probably imagine the reputational, statutory or financial downsides to ambiguity or mistakes when it comes to the law. But a legal mistranslation can even have implications for international diplomacy or national security.
At the end of WWII, the United States issued the Potsdam Declaration, a document which demanded the surrender of Japan. The response featured the word ‘mokusatsu’ which, in Japanese culture, means ‘ignore’ and can be interpreted as indifference to a subject. It also has another meaning — to reject — and this was the version that was understood in Japanese communications back to the US. This suggested a much firmer rebuttal of the ultimatum than was intended, impacting on the following decision to order the atomic bombing of Japan.
Mistranslation can also be costly in the judicial realm. Crimes are often interpreted differently across borders; a poor translation can cause a completely different judgment, or vague meaning to be inferred. This risks not only confusion and reputational damage, but also legal exposure and lawsuit, with huge ramifications for those involved.
The consequences of shoddy legal translation mistakes are far-reaching; ambiguity in the translation of a contract, for example, can lead to financial disaster for parties involved. One interesting (and arguably less serious) example of legal translation gone wrong relates to Antónia Bálint, who was crowned Miss Hungary in 1991. A few years after her triumph, she lost her crown because of resurfacing of nude images, which were ostensibly forbidden by the competition.
This was down to a mistranslation of a contract. The authentic original contract stated that explicit images should not be done in the present and future, but the slipshod translated contract applied this in the past tense, too. In 1997, the erroneous translation was acknowledged, and Ms Bálint was awarded the equivalent of £18,000 worth of damages.
So, when it comes to the letter of the law, why take a chance on ambiguity?
Our translators: expert, native legal linguists
Since 1998, we’ve been delivering a world-class standard of professional legal translation for a diverse client base. Employing the latest project management techniques and making sensible use of technology, all of our legal translators are the following —
- Experts — All of our legal translators have deep, direct experience in the legal area that concerns your translations.
- Native — As well as knowing their stuff inside out, the legal translator working on your project will be a mother tongue speaker of the language that you’re looking to translate into. We don’t compromise on this golden rule. All translated material must read as if it had been created in the target language.
- Linguists — Translating is a skill in itself. All of the translators we work with are experienced, qualified linguists.
We understand that confidentiality is key to many clients, particularly when it comes to legal. Discretion is as important as concision — needless to say, we boast all the relevant industry accreditations and an unwavering commitment to privacy and sensitivity.
Ready to translate? Talk legal to us
When it comes to the translation of content for the legal sector, we’re tried, tested and trusted by many brands around the world. We deliver unambiguous, expert legal translations between all of the major languages of the world. If you’re interested in enlisting Alexika, learn more about our legal translation services.
Once you’re ready to start your project, get in touch with our in-house expert team to discuss your exact requirements. We know exactly what it takes to achieve absolute authenticity when rendering legal documentation — right down to the letter.