Legal Translation: why errors can affect people's lives |
Legal Translation: why errors can affect people’s lives

Legal translation is present in very important processes of people’s lives: adopting a child abroad, confirming the divorce of a double-nationality couple, finalizing a business contract or product patent or insurance. “Legalese” is one of the most peculiar of language types, because of its specific terminology and syntax, so errors in translating it can affect people’s lives in serious ways.    

What is the main difference between legal translation and other types of translation? 

The main difference between legal translation and other types of linguistic services is that whenever a client seeks legal translation, they are normally involved in a process that will have legal consequences on their lives. Therefore, even the slightest error can have a major impact on their future; whether it is their wish to expand their family or start a new job abroad, a high-quality legal translation can make the difference for them. 

As recent research has found, it is common for translators to be faced with numerous problems when translating legal texts. Most of these problems are based on the intricacy of the legal jargon, a characteristic that transcends language barriers. No matter where in the world you are or what language you are dealing with, legal documents and conversations are bound to be linguistically complex. For translators and interpreters, some of the main obstacles are: the influence of ordinary language, the lack of reliable reference tools, an insufficient level of legal knowledge, and the peculiar characteristics of legal language. 

But fear not! The good news is there are excellent professionals in the field, who have a deep knowledge of the legal system in their working countries and vast experience finding their way in the labyrinth of legal translation.  

What are the consequences of legal translation errors? 

The consequences of legal translation or interpretation errors can be catastrophic. The stakes are high when it comes to legal matters. A small mistake can have multi-million dollar consequences, and translation errors are not acceptable. The best way to avoid such issues is to hire the services of a specialized, professional legal translator.  

In the case of legal translation in business environments, translation errors can cause a risk to the company’s reputation as well as disputes with customers or partners. A firm’s reputation can be at risk if a certain business transaction involves ill-translated paperwork, such as the terms and conditions of a specific service. This can cause the counterpart — be it a supplier, customer or partner — to withdraw from the transaction (in the best scenario) or even a costly dispute, in worse cases.  

 Legal translation is also a part of every contract. Hiring or dismissing an employee, acquiring the services of a consultant or even hiring a cleaning company can become sensitive situations if the legalities are not properly translated. Bottomline: legal translation errors can lead to the loss of time and money, but also the loss of respect and networking opportunities. Legal translation is a big part of conducting businesses in foreign language markets and it is crucial in complying with local laws. 

In the courtroom, on the other hand, the consequences can even be more serious. Take, for example, the case of a mistake in the translation of a criminal trial, where the wrong word can have a direct effect on a jury’s perception of the defendant’s character. As the jury is in charge of determining that person’s verdict, one word can eventually lead to an innocent person spending time in jail. True enough, not all consequences of courtroom interpretation errors tend to be so serious, but you get the point.  

Seeking legal translation services: dos and don’ts  

Legal translation is “one of the most demanding and vital areas of contemporary translation practice” (Pi-Chan Hu and Le Cheng, 2016). So, seeking the help of professional translation services is fundamental, but there are some important aspects to keep in mind when doing so.  

First of all, be sure not to underestimate the importance of specialization. The legal universe has many different types of specialties: from international legislation and decisions from organisms such as the UN, governmental reports and notifications; to labor, family, environmental or business law. Each field is a very specific niche within the area of legal translation, so be sure to pay attention to the level of expertise of the translator of your choosing.  

As surprising as it may sound, there are expert translators for each of those areas, also in topics as specific as real estate or divorce law. Also, because the legal system in each country can vary considerably, an experienced professional can make the difference between complying with sensitive regulations and breaking the law. 

Also, as practical and useful as Google Translate can be in multilingual situations, its use is not advisable for legal translation. Do not take it just from us. There is actual scientific research to prove it. When it comes to legal matters, a certain level of precision is required which Google Translate cannot provide. According to a comparative study conducted in translation of legal texts from English into Arabic, the errors are both lexical and syntactic. In the first category, the output text shows issues such as polysemy and homonymy, legal doublets, and legal adverbs. The syntactic level includes problems of morphological parsing, concord and modality (Basel Abd-AlKareem Hijazi, 2013). 

Our advice 

  • Do go for the experts. When it comes to legal matters, specialization is key.  
  • Don’t underestimate the difference an expert translator, interpreter or proofreader can make for your business transactions, divorce or adoption proceedings, etc. 
  • Do hire professional linguistic services.  
  • Don’t use Google Translate. While it is an amazing tool if you need to understand the gist of a legal text in a foreign language, it is not accurate enough when translating legal documents.