What is Legal Translation?

Legal translation refers to the translation or linguistic conversion of any document pertaining to the domain of law. Since documents used in legal processes are required to be presented in the local languages, official languages or the regional languages of the jurisdiction of the court, such documents can include the following types of documents: legal rulings, precedents, official reports, financial documents, filed patents,  personal and corporate IDs, wills, testaments and witness statements.

Legal translations  are only undertaken by those with specialist knowledge as mistranslations, especially of contracts, can carry significant financial and legal consequences.

Legal translations in some countries required a certification and licence, while in other countries, legal translators are required to swear oaths (known as sworn translators). In yet other countries, it is expected that translations of this type are undertaken by legal professionals or translators with law degrees. In other countries, where translation is not centrally regulated, there are trade associations and other bodies that offer accreditation for professional standards. The profession of legal translation is regulated by the state to maintain high standards of professional skill, integrity and accountability. Proficiency and accuracy are essential in the skill as the translation impacts the law and dispensation of justice.

As in any other translation, the need for accuracy and contextual and terminological appropriateness is paramount. Domain specific use of terminology is essential for correctly interpreting the content and translating into the target language. The translator needs to be well versed in the technical legal language (legal register) of both source and target languages. Specialised legal translators play an important role in this meeting this requirement.

Legal translators need to be sworn and notarised with an undertaking by the translator and the translation agency stating that the translation is accurate, that the translated text is a true translation of the source document (while identifying the source document in the best possible way), and that they translators assume responsibility for the same. All legal translations are stamped and sealed by the translator.

Legal translators are not just bridging a linguistic divide but also a systemic difference. The legal systems of the source (ST) and target (TT) texts are not necessarily similar. Take for example the Anglo-Saxon laws that have influenced the prevalent laws of most of the erstwhile colonial world, as opposed to Sharia or  other Islamic law in certain countries or the laws of the far east. Legal, systemic and cultural dissimilarities are hard to convey in a system and language that may not only lack the vocabulary but also the concepts of other systems. A strong knowledge of jurisprudence is thus essential in recreating the concept in the target language in a way that is comprehendible by the target audience. The terminological gap is overcome using tools such as functional translations (finding ways, words, phrases etc.) of fulfilling the same intended function of the source text in the target language rather than trying to find the linguistic equivalent of the exact words. Verbatim translations are therefore a misleading trap and cause lawyers and clients into believe in the supremacy of word-for-word translation for legal texts. Legal translations require a fair amount of knowledge of translation theory as well as law besides having a creative and linguistic flair to recreate factual legal texts in an effective manner in the target language.

Importance of Legal Translation

As we have come to understand that many differences in the legal systems, cultures, languages and ways of functioning result in a stupendous task for legal translators. The slightest misinterpretation of the legalese or error in the translation can render the translated documents null and void. The importance of accuracy is of great significance and can result in great financial and legal risks.

Trade between different countries requires adherence and compliance with the laws and regulations of all involved countries. Errors or omissions can have serious consequences.

As we’ve established, there are many differences when it comes to legal systems in different countries. Add to that a language barrier, cultural factors and the unique terminology that underpins many documents – often referred to as legalese – and you can begin to appreciate the need for legal translation.

It is, after all, one of the most complex forms of translation, language translation services where even the slightest mistake, misinterpretation and ambiguity of a word or a phrase, can render a document void. As the cost of these errors, financial or otherwise (reputation, for example), can be significant, it is important that this process is as effective as possible.


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