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When do you need legally trained translators to translate legal documents?

Published on September 27, 2019

A common misconception about translation is that a truly skilled translator will translate texts on any subject matter to the same high degree of quality. Lawyers are thus often surprised when qualified translators cannot deliver the quality expected.

The notion that a good translator can easily translate legal texts without legal training is belied by the very nature of translation, which is to the convey the meaning of a foreign-language text. Clearly, nobody can convey a meaning unless they are first able to understand it.


Challenges with legal translation


Legal Concepts

difficulty in understanding source text with complex legal concepts



Legal Systems

conveying precise legal consequences of the source text into the target language and legal system


Difficulty understanding the source text is therefore the first stumbling block for the untrained translator. For example, a lay translator, no matter how skilled, will have difficulty translating a judgment concerning an application to annul an international arbitral award if that translator does not know (a) what an “international arbitral award” is; or (b) what “annulment” means when applied to such an award.

The second stumbling block is the need to convey the precise legal consequences of the source text in a manner that they can be understood not just in the target language, but also in the legal system where the translation will be used. For instance, a translator that is unfamiliar with the English law on civil enforcement will have difficulty providing intelligible and accurate translations of French civil enforcement measures such as saisie-arrêt or saisie-attribution.

Legal translation is therefore more than pure language translation: it requires the ability to convey foreign legal concepts, some of which may even be completely unknown in the target legal system. Only translators with extensive legal training and experience can accomplish this.


What can you do about it?

When selecting a legal translation service, law firms should therefore ensure that such service:


1) understands the specific nature of legal translation;

2) employs translators with proper legal training and experience to deliver quality; and

3) can create bespoke translation teams collecting the necessary skills based on the specific legal requirements of the case.


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