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September 5, 2019 |

Top 5 Challenges of Translating Legal Documents

Translating legal documents is a job for Subject Matter Experts (SMEs). Any small error or missed word could lead to a series of legal issues for the parties concerned–and that rarely ends well. 

Just some of the documents that specialists in this field translate include certificates of various types, licences, and permits, legal contracts and business documentation, and court documents (applications, court judgements, instructions, petitions, and resolutions).

Legal translations require in-depth knowledge of specific terms and attention to detail. Experience and a background in the industry are also extremely helpful.

A lot of the time, in this translation niche, it’s like walking around in quicksand and legal translators must be careful of where they step. Let’s look at the top five challenges legal translators have to overcome as part of their daily work routine. 

1. Legal Systems Are Different from Country to Country

Legal systems in different countries vary a lot, and so do the specific documents. This variety of paperwork creates just the right environment for ambiguity in translation. Often, international organizations provide guidance and some best practices to help translators transform documents from one language to another without changing them. 

However, that doesn’t make the work any less difficult for language experts. A legal translator should know all the variations and similarities between the standard of both the source and target language. 

Experts should be aware of the existence of terms with no equivalent or with multiple equivalents in the target language. They should also be trained to identify the correct usage of every term depending on the context, to avoid misunderstandings.  

Without proper knowledge of the legal terminology, translators are very likely to leave room for interpretation. This can easily cause later disputes, with many possible consequences on the client’s resources and reputation. 

2. The Laws Evolve and Systems Change

Not only are legal systems different, but they also keep changing and updating. Templates and guidelines that worked a month or a week ago may not be relevant by the time you reach your deadlines. 

Legal translators must keep up with a series of norms and regulations that often change overnight. It involves staying connected to everything that happens in both countries, as well as keeping an eye on every new law that might affect their work. 

In this case, being a member of a professional organization can help a language expert stay updated without having to subscribe to all the legal magazines in the region. 

3. Word Selection Doesn’t Leave Room for Flexibility

Legal executives often speak a language within the language, using terms that even native speakers barely understand and often misuse. Add the fact that terminology in legal documents is often very rigid, and you’ll get the least flexible translation niche

Of course, translators are required to interpret the source document and understand the meaning behind it. However, they have a very narrow framework when it comes to choosing the best words. Creativity passes to second place when it comes to legal translations. 

Working with a glossary of terms and building a solid translation memory can be the best ways to overcome this challenge in translating legal documents. It also saves linguists time and reduces the risks of translation errors.  

4. Syntax and Punctuation Require Attention to Detail

The trickiest part of translating legal documents lies in their syntax. Also, most of these documents use what’s called “wooden language”–a series of pompous and ambiguous words that make the material hard to read. 

It’s the standard in the legal industry to use the passive voice; complex sentences that seem endless, an infinite number of commas, semicolons, and apostrophes. In plain English? It’s the worst nightmare of any linguist, writer, or translator! 

Punctuation rules aren’t universal either. And as for the Oxford comma? It doesn’t exist in many languages and can even generate quite a confusion.  

The bad news is that the translation must follow the same rules as the original, as most countries rely on the same best practice of the wooden language when writing legal documents. It’s very easy to change a comma into a semicolon or add a period in the wrong place. 

Unfortunately, a missing comma is enough to create ambiguity in legal contracts, where every omission or interpretation can change the terms and conditions. The best way to avoid this sort of mistake is to have a second pair of eyes for proofreading. Or, have a local specialist check the translated version of the document before handing it to the client. 

5. Legal Translators Often Work with Strict Deadlines

Most of the time, legal documents are tied to events that involve courtrooms, deadlines, and corporate actions. They all have some strict timescales in common. Delays in this industry can trigger a series of unpleasant events for the translators involved, as well as their clients and their client’s business partners. 

Language experts need to be aware of any challenge that could slow down the translation project and overcome any obstacles in time. 

The Challenges of Translating Legal Documents

As you can see, translating legal documents is not exactly a breeze. It’s a complex task that requires language skills, legal knowledge, and, oftentimes, speed. It’s impossible to be successful in this niche without specialized training. Also, working with CAT tools and using a translation memory can make the job easier.   

Last but not least, translating legal documents requires translators to have a high level of experience to meet all the requirements in this niche. Often, they’re required to obtain specific certifications to be able to do this job. 

Finally, as legal translations often need to be legalized or certified to be relevant, legal translators should be registered with official institutions, such as the Ministry of Justice or a regional court.