In an increasingly open and interconnected world, making sure that order is maintained to cultures’ specific standards and beliefs is a complicated process. It involves upholding the idea that everyone is equal under the eyes of the law, that people are given due process, and are provided the benefits or consequences of their actions in society.
Language is one of the most effective ways to communicate those decisions; thus, translation has become an integral, indispensable part of the field. A specialized area in its own right, legal translation is a true balancing act between the various legal systems scattered around the world, and the people who are seeking to operate within its walls.
Take note that talking about legal translation does not immediately mean legal advice. Legal translation can be complex and context-specific, and the requirements can vary significantly based on the situation and jurisdiction. Understanding the how and why of the process can be a benefit to both individuals and organizations, but for those who have particular issues that need a legitimate legal resolution, please consult with qualified legal professionals.
Legal translation is more complex than it appears. It’s not just about making sure that each word is right from one language to another only within the law industry; it’s also about making sure each text is accurate and legally valid within the locations it will be executed in. The final point is particularly important, as there are specialized terminologies and concepts that can vary significantly from one legal system to another.
This is more apparent in legal documents, which depends on the service and needs they serve. Certificates, licenses, contracts and agreements, testaments — these all belong to the legal industry, requiring their own understanding of the details and information held within.
This makes a legal translator’s job incredibly challenging. Not only do they have to be aware of varying legal jargon and system-specific concepts, but they also have to think of sentence structure, formatting and layout styles, cultural nuances and differences, liabilities and ethical responsibilities, and various law interpretations, all the while needing to maintain consistency in wording and what kind of translation would best suit the the document.
Nevertheless, a translator’s role in legal translation is crucial. Legal translation often happens in the international stage, where relationships between nations on a larger scale affect the people within it.
Some areas that legal translation is prominent in include:
Cross-border litigation and arbitration, where parties, evidence, or legal frameworks span different languages and legal systems,
Compliance with local or international requirements and regulations, where foreign legal documents or businesses need to be admissible in a court or legal process in another country,
Multinational contracts and agreements, where terms and conditions need to be clearly understood by all parties,
Business mergers and acquisitions: where processes require due diligence, especially if the other company is foreign,
Human rights cases, where victims and witnesses might speak different languages for testimonies and legal arguments,
International treaties, where matters of trade and economic responsibilities affect all signing countries,
Intellectual property rights: where patents or trademarks are applicable for multiple countries,
Immigration documents, where people go through the process of moving across borders that might speak a different language, and,
International adoption and family law, where child welfare, parental rights, and legal procedures need to be clearly understood by all parties.
This highlights the importance of legal translation, extending it far beyond mere word-to-word conversion. It serves as a critical bridge in international relations, business, and law, its purpose pivotal in facilitating cross-border communication, as well as ensuring that the clear understanding of legal documents is multifaceted:
The consequences of inaccurate legal translations can be dire, not just individually, but also potentially world-altering.
In terms of court cases, translations in legal proceedings can lead to misinterpretations of testimony or documentary evidence, possibly altering its outcome. A mistranslated piece of evidence in a criminal trial could lead to wrongful conviction or acquittal. Inaccurate translations can also lead to legal challenges over the scope and validity of a person’s or company’s rights. Look no further than this news article by PBS, where a Spanish man, on trial for running a red light, instead believes that he is being accused of rape due to his interpreter saying the wrong word.
Another potential effect of mistaken legal translation is causing people and companies to unknowingly break laws or agreements due to non-compliance, potentially leading to legal penalties, disputes, or sanctions. These can also have the additional side-effect of pausing the proceedings, as time and resources are spent rectifying errors, leading to inefficiencies and delayed justice.
In a 2011 dispute between the Chinese and foreign parties, "drydocking" was mistranslated as "tank washing" and "except fuel used for domestic service" was misinterpreted as "except fuel used for domestic flights" in the contract terms when it was translated from English to Chinese. This caused the parties involved to argue about their rights and obligations as well as their share of costs.
Legal translations also negatively impact finances. A wrong word in a legal text can lead to lawsuits and prolonged litigation, imposing significant financial burdens on the parties involved. These cases can run up to years to resolve, and can cost companies and individuals up to millions in terms of cash and assets. This financial loss can have long-term effects as well, with misunderstandings leading to the collapse of potentially lucrative deals, affecting one’s credibility, reputation, and trustworthiness in the global market. The Shanghai Maritime Court additionally discusses this in an article with China Daily, that while these cases “account for than 5 percent,” of all cases, these mistakes are avoidable and have brought significant losses to the Chinese companies.
Internationally, an incorrect translation of treaties, statements, or agreements can strain diplomatic relations. One of the most infamous examples is during World War II, where the then Premier of Japan made a comment that has been translated by international news agencies as “not worthy of comment/silent contempt” when discussing the terms of the country’s surrender. It’s not confirmed, but this exchange might have been one of the reasons why an atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, ending the war for good.
These are but a few instances where proper legal translations are the cornerstone for each interaction. Without precision and expertise, a poorly constructed statement means the difference between a person’s freedom, financial security, and continued lifetime stability.
Businesses deal with legal translation as often as individuals, due to the process of global expansion and cross-border dealings. Business relationships hinge significantly on the ability to navigate the legal landscapes of different countries, which often speak different legal 'languages'. For businesses, here are a few areas where legal translations are indispensable:
Clarity in contracts: Agreements and contracts cannot happen if all the parties are not on the same page. Legal translations ensure that the terms and conditions are clearly understood by all parties no matter where in the world they are, regardless of their native language. This also identifies and reduces legal risks associated with international business activities, avoiding misinterpretations, lawsuits, disputes, financial losses, and damage to reputation.
Compliance with local laws: Translating legal documents is also necessary so that businesses operate within the laws of the countries they are in, including regulatory requirements, employment laws, and corporate governance standards.
Understanding market-specific regulations: Businesses need the knowledge of the legal framework governing their industry as they enter new markets. Legal translations can assist in interpreting these regulations accurately.
Intellectual Property Protection: For businesses with international intellectual properties, accurate legal translations are vital for filing patents and trademarks in different languages.
For individuals, legal translations are often necessary for a variety of personal reasons that might cross international boundaries. In this instance, legal translations are often accompanied by a certificate to add a layer of verification, ensuring that the translation is accurate and meets the required legal standards.
These are just a few cases where legal translation might be a requirement:
Visa applications and residency permits: Immigration documents, such as birth certificates, marriage certificates, and police clearance certificates, often need to be translated and certified for them to be accepted by foreign immigration authorities. Other legal documents such as sponsorship letters, financial documents and court records help people understand and accept their rights and obligations in the immigration process, avoiding potential legal issues.
Cross-cultural marriages: In cases of marriages between partners from different countries, legal translations of marriage certificates and related documents are a step forward to official recognition in both countries.
Child custody and adoption: In relation to marriage, adoption and the custody of children have a stricter procedure, necessitating properly certified legal translations to maintain the protection and security of the individual.
Recognition of academic degrees and certificates: For individuals seeking further education or employment abroad, certified translations of their academic documents are necessary for these credentials to be recognized in the host country.
Professional qualifications: Translating and certifying professional qualifications and licenses is also additional security and confirmation for people looking to practice their chosen careers in a different country.
With all the requirements necessary for legal translation, individuals and organizations can approach professional legal translation services to make this process easier. Tomedes not only offers 24/7 assistance, but also partners with legal translators that have the expertise and experience for specific legal needs. Consult with these legal professional service providers to know the scope and range of their services such as available legal glossaries and the security and confidentiality of their work, since legal translation may contain sensitive, private information.
Machine Translation (MT) tools like Google Translate and MachineTranslation.com can also offer a quick, less costly alternative. But be prepared: machine translation can fall short in some parts of the translation process.
While currently more advanced, MT still cannot fully grasp the complexities of multiple legal frameworks. They also raise the question of data privacy and security. The inaccuracies and inconsistencies produced through this method could result in liability issues at best, and a failed lawsuit at the worst, making it a risky option for critical legal documents.
Legal translation is a vital cog that maintains the order within international laws and businesses. The stakes in legal translation are high, so whether it's for business contracts, personal documents, or legal proceedings, professional legal translation services are an irreplaceable part of the process, ensuring that the translated document is accurate, legally valid, and culturally appropriate.
Raphaella Funelas is a creative writer who graduated from the University of the Philippines Diliman with a Bachelor of Arts degree in English Studies, specializing in Language. She likes learning about anything new in any field, and has pursued that interest through a writing career. She always has an ear on the ground for any exciting topics, and an enthusiasm to share any newfound knowledge through her words.