7 Common Pain Points in Legal Translation and How to Address Them

December 5, 2023
7 Common Pain Points in Legal Translation and How to Address Them

Legal translation serves as a vital tool in the globalized world, translating a wide array of documents across industries, from contracts and patents to court transcripts and legal certificates. Yet, its inherent complexity presents several challenges. To ensure accurate and legally sound translations, organizations must be aware of these pitfalls. 

In this article, we examine seven common challenges of legal translation. With the correct understanding and application of legal translation processes, firms, companies, and legal organizations can avoid these mistakes and secure translations that meet their exact needs.

  1. Enlisting the wrong person for the job 

Translators, like any specialists, build their expertise through education, experience, and continuous learning. This is particularly important in fields with unique terminology and nuances, such as legal translation.

Legal systems worldwide differ significantly, each with its unique terms and principles. Legal translators need a profound understanding of both the source and target languages and their respective legal systems. It’s more than being bilingual; it involves knowing the law in two different cultures. This specialized knowledge is vital as issues in legal translations can lead to legal disputes or financial losses. 

Therefore, it’s crucial to select a linguist with proven experience in the legal field and your desired language pair. Without this expertise, you may get a translation that’s linguistically accurate but legally incorrect or contextually inappropriate.

  1. Thinking MT and human translations are one in the same

Machine translation (MT) technologies have improved significantly over the years. Today, they are helpful for general communication or translating non-legal documents where absolute precision isn’t crucial. However, MT has limitations. Most notably, it lacks the nuanced understanding of a human translator.

MTs use algorithms and existing translation databases, which can struggle with cultural nuances, context, and specialized terminology. These are critical elements, and without them, legal translation problems are quick to arise. Machines also lack understanding of different legal frameworks and sensitivity to specific terminologies within them. These areas are where a specialized human translator excels, given their knowledge of the language pair and the respective legal systems. So, while MT offers convenience, professional legal translators are necessary for translating critical, legally binding documents.

  1. Disregarding confidentiality

Confidentiality is critical in legal matters, as these documents often contain sensitive and proprietary information. Any breach can lead to severe repercussions, including legal issues and reputational damage. That’s why it is important to choose a translator or LSP that prioritizes confidentiality and stringent data protection.

Machine translation, while convenient, can’t match professional translation services when it comes to confidentiality. Data transmitted for machine translation can be susceptible to risks like hacking or leaks. On the other hand, a professional translation agency implements robust data protection measures, such as encrypted data transmission, secure environments, and non-disclosure agreements. They’re committed to maintaining client trust by safeguarding their information, making them the preferred choice for confidential legal translations.

  1. Not having the correct certification / notarization

Legal translation requirements can differ greatly by the state, country, or institution. The legal validity of a translation depends on these specific requirements. In some cases, a certificate of translation accuracy, affirming the translation's correctness and completeness, may be enough.

In contrast, other countries or institutions might demand more stringent requirements, such as state-approved translators. Some countries, like Germany and France, require legal translators to hold a graduate degree in translation studies and be certified. Moreover, understanding the difference between certified and notarized translations is vital. While certified translation affirms the translation’s accuracy, a notarized translation verifies the identity of the person certifying the translation. Recognizing these requirements avoids potential problems with the legal translation and complications with authorities that may follow.

  1. Misunderstanding legal & linguistic differences

Legal translation goes beyond simple language translation, as it requires understanding the law’s cultural, historical, and societal contexts. A direct word-for-word rendering of the source to target language may lead to misinterpretations and problems in translation. This complexity is evident even among countries sharing the same language.

For instance, differences exist in legal terminology between Latin American Spanish and European Spanish, and even within Latin American countries like Argentina and Cuba. Each region's unique legal systems and traditions shape these differences. Therefore, it’s essential to engage a translator or language service provider who specializes in the specific legal systems and cultures involved. Such professionals can accurately navigate legal terminologies and cultural nuances, ensuring an accurate representation of the original document's intent and context.

  1. Not using a glossary

Maintaining a glossary for translation projects is crucial for achieving consistent and accurate legal translations. It acts as a reference guide, detailing your organization’s specific legal terminology and their approved translations, ensuring uniformity across multiple documents and projects. Without it, you risk having multiple terms for the same concept, which is a major translation problem for the legal domain.

Consistency in language not only lends professionalism but also reinforces your brand image. It minimizes confusion, increases clarity, and enhances your reputation for reliability. You can create this glossary yourself or entrust its creation to your translator or LSP. As you collaborate on further legal translation projects, the glossary evolves and expands to reflect changes in laws, codes, and policies, ensuring your translated content remains current and consistently reflective of the legal domain.

  1. Expecting more for less

Legal translation demands more than linguistic skills; it requires an in-depth understanding of the source and target legal systems and their cultural contexts, which includes special terminologies and legal jargon. This complexity necessitates both time and financial investment. There can be a misconception that legal translations are cheap and quick, but this balance between cost, quality, and timeline isn't so simple.

Cutting costs can mean longer delivery times as non-professionals navigate complex legal terminologies. Conversely, a fast turnaround usually implies a higher cost, due to prioritizing your project and possibly working extra hours. Therefore, understanding the intricacies of the legal translation industry can prevent unrealistic expectations and ensure satisfaction. After all, it’s not a simple translation task, but a process of accurately communicating complex legal concepts across different legal systems and cultures.

Final Thoughts

Navigating the complexities of legal translation is no simple feat. There are many pitfalls, and the stakes are high. These problems of legal translation can bring about many unwanted circumstances. However, with the right language service provider at your side, you can sidestep these challenges and secure precise, legally accurate translations that meet your needs. 

Key to this success is asking the right questions upfront. Engage with potential LSPs, probe into their legal translation processes, their expertise, confidentiality measures, and their handling of linguistic and legal nuances. The depth and quality of their responses can provide vital insights into their capabilities. 

Remember, your goal is to ensure the legality of your documents across borders and cultures. Choosing a reliable, expert LSP is the first step towards that goal.


By Natalie Worden

Natalie Worden is a freelance translator, copywriter, and localization specialist. She holds a master’s degree in professional and literary translation from the Institut de Traducteurs, d'Interprètes et de Relations Internationales at the University of Strasbourg.



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