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The Difficulties of Legal Translations Explained

Legal Translation
The Difficulties of Legal Translations Explained
on November, 15 2016

Translating consists of a lot more than simply taking a text written in a language and converting the text to a completely different language. In order for it to make sense and flow in a clear and accurately conveyed legal language, the translator must command a deep knowledge of the legal systems referred.

It is simply not enough to be simply proficient in two languages to do specialized translations in the legal field. Specialized legal knowledge is an absolute requirement and involves years of study.

Numerous skills are at play when you are translating, and legal documents, in particular, demand a lot from the translator. Serious challenges are often faced by translators when assigned a legal project. With such texts, there is simply no room for error: the smallest of errors can have very serious consequences and can be very expensive for the client.

Challenges in Legal Translation

The nature of the legal language and the law accounts for most of the difficulties and complexities involved in legally translating a document. Legal translation is a difficult niche within the translation field because each country has its own unique legal system and legal terminology that must be accurately conveyed in the target language of a translation.

In addition, aptly referring and explaining the two legal systems and the standard linguistic and cultural differences between the societies of the two languages makes the translation task more arduous for the legal translator.

Legal systems are representative of the societies they were founded in; each society, in turn, is built on unique social, cultural and linguistic structures. In other words, the law and legal language of a country reflect the overarching legal system, which in turn reflects the history, culture and evolution of the country. The incongruence of the two legal systems the legal translation refers to constitute the core of the challenges in translating a legal document.

The Terminologies Are Too Different

The legal terminologies between the source and target languages often vary widely – this is the standard difficulty faced by legal translators. When translating, the translator must constantly compare the two legal systems of the two languages s/he is tackling.

Differences in Culture

The legal language and law of a country reflects its culture. The legal translator must understand the cultural differences of the legal systems of the two societies s/he is addressing in his/her legal translation.

Legal Style

All legal languages are distinct languages unto themselves – each is highly specialized with its own style, shaped by the legal traditions and culture of the relevant country.

Degrees of Difficulty

The difficulty in translating a legal text depends on the two legal systems referred to by the source and target language and the nature of the target and source languages themselves. Legal translations are in some ways more complex than other types of translations, although the translator's specialty should fit the project being translated. Translating children's books or movies, for example, requires a different skill set from legal translations.

For example, the difficulty of a legal translation may refer to:

  • Two legal systems communicated in legal languages that are similar – this may result in an easy translation.
  • Two similar legal systems communicated in two legal languages that are different, which may result in a not-too-difficult translation.
  • Two completely different legal systems with two legal languages that are closely related. Such a project would be of considerable difficulty for the translator.
  • Two distinctly unrelated legal languages and systems. This pairing of two cultures and languages is the hardest for a legal translator.

In other words, the level of difficulty in a legal translation depends completely on the affinity level between the relevant legal systems and source and target languages.

Qualities to Look for in a Legal Translator

Because legal translation is one of the most difficult and complex translation projects to undertake, it's vital that the translator has the following skills:

  • Be fully acquainted with the legal writing style of the target language.
  • Be knowledgeable of the legal systems of the two countries of the source and target languages.
  • Be able to research the legal concept of a term in the source language when the equivalent term in the target language is not obvious.
  • Be acquainted with the original document's terminology.
  • Be capable of, first, decoding the source language text when it's difficult to find an exact translation of a segment of the document, and second, convey the original meaning of the text segment in the target language as much as possible.
  • Be fully cognizant of the purpose and intended use of the translated document. This influences both the translation and the translator's approach to it. The translation's terminology, tone, phraseology, syntax and other aspects of the translation depend on the purpose of the translation.
  • Be detail-oriented and faithful to the meaning and length of the document to be translated. In legal discourse, details are important and should be properly conveyed in the translation. Translators should not consider cutting text or shortening the number of words that may come across as redundant, as length and repetition are stylistic features of the original legal text and serve a vital purpose.

Types of Legal Translations

A professional translating a legal document must be knowledgeable about its legal background and terminology specific to the referred field of law. The typical kinds of legal translations are the following:

  • Personal identity, individual record and social status papers that legally establish the education or work or identity of an individual. These documents include references or work testimonials, police reports, educational certificates or diplomas, birth certificates, divorce decrees, and others.
  • Court documents that detail trials or penal proceedings, the translation of which is often requested for international judicial assistance cases. Translators must be able to distinguish between the systems of civil and criminal proceedings as these are not the same despite the terminologies being similar.
  • Trade contracts approved by foreign courts; these are necessary for the selling of goods or the granting of a trade license. A company looking to do business in a foreign country must have its Shareholder Books or Articles of Incorporation translated on top of its commercial registration documents.
  • International treaties that apply the rule of international law, rules and regulations in the signatory countries. Because the original language document must have the same legal effect as its official translation in a second language, legal translators here must make sure the text in the target language accurately and transparently conveys the same legal effects in practice.

Legal translations can be difficult to undertake but translators play a critical role in all civilized societies. Because the law affects every area of our lives, from accepting a company's terms and conditions when downloading software onto your computer or smart phone to withdrawing money from a cash machine, translated legal terms defining what a government or company or individual can or cannot do has gross implications for modern human society.

Because all law shapes the very underlying structure of our societies, the legal translator must have a strong understanding of relevant legal concepts, terms and systems when accepting an important legal document to translate. Notwithstanding, a legal translation can be very difficult, a fact I hope to have properly explored in this article.

Denise Recalde

Denise Recalde is a Senior Content Writer at Day Translations. A seasoned writer and editor with eleven years of experience under her belt, she is a bonafide wordsmith who loves playing with the written word creatively and always takes care to lend a certain hue of snap and color to her drafts. Always one to rise up to challenges, she has traveled to 14 countries and has worked on a smorgasbord of writing projects that spanned several industries, from finance to health to beauty and fashion.

  • Alina James

    Great tips about legal translations. I really appreciate the efforts of the author to post such useful tips for everyone to make easy legal translations. You can also consult "Barnes, Thompson & Brown" ( for any legal translations in a multiple languages.

  • Max Neilson

    Very unique topic and content, the main concern which arises during translating into different language is the terminologies which are different in different countries and region, and that's where the two legal system conflicts with one another.
    But as translation in today's communities has become an important part translators plays their vital role for it.

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