Is Being Proficient In Two Languages Enough To Do Legal Translations?


The world of professional translation services is very complex and involves numerous skills. It is not only about taking text written in one language and transferring it into another. It goes beyond that. So being proficient in two languages is not enough for specialised translations, and this includes legal translations.

The translation of legal documents is a very demanding process because of the nature of these documents. There is no room for mistakes, as the smallest of errors can have very serious consequences, including financial costs.

Legal translations are one of the most difficult areas of the profession because each country has its own legal system and legal terms. Therefore, the translator will face serious challenges when working on this kind of assignment.

What are the difficulties that legal translators face?

In legal translations, the nature of legal language and law contributes to its difficulty and complexity.  We have to add to this the complications that can be found when crossing two legal systems and languages in translation. The sources of difficulty in legal translation include the difference in legal systems, as well as linguistic and cultural differences.

  • Different laws and legal systems

The legal language is not a universal technical language, as it is closely related to the national legal system. Legal language and law are system bound and they reflect the evolution, history and culture of a specific legal system. Law as a concept is reflected in norms of conducts in different countries and it is a universal abstract content however, legal systems are not. They are peculiar to the specific societies where they have been created because each society has a specific social, cultural and linguistic structure. Here lies the main difficulty when translating legal documents, the incongruence of legal systems in the source and target languages.

  • Absence of equivalent terminology

One of the most common linguistic difficulties that translators face when doing legal translations is the absence of equivalent terminology in the target language. This requires the translator to constantly compare both legal systems, from the source language and target language.

  • Legal style

Legal language is a much specialised language that has its own style determined by the legal traditions and culture of the country of origin.

  • Cultural differences

Law is considered an expression of a country’s culture communicated through legal language. Translators must overcome the cultural barriers that exist between the source language and target language.

Legal translation services

Degrees of difficulty

When working on legal translations between different legal systems, the levels of difficulty may vary. Here are some possible scenarios and levels of difficulty depending on the languages and affinity of the legal systems involved.

  1. Two legal systems and languages that are closely related

This translation task may be relatively easy. Such translations would be for example from the Spanish to French system or from the Danish to the Norwegian.

  1. Two legal systems that are closely related but the languages are not

For example when translating between Dutch laws and French laws, the translation may not be too difficult. Here these two countries which have similar legal systems but the languages are not closely related.

  1. Two different legal systems but closely related languages

When this scenario occurs, there is a considerable level of difficulty and probably the main challenge will be the translation of “faux amis” terms, like for example when translating Dutch legal texts into German or vice versa.

  1. Two unrelated legal systems and languages

This is probably the highest level of difficulty of all and one example would be when translating Common Law in English into Chinese.

The level of difficulty of legal translations depends on the level of affinity between the involved legal systems and languages.

What qualities must a good legal translation provider have?

Legal translation services, as mentioned before, is probably one of the most complex and difficult type of translations. In order to avoid a word-by-word translation that will make no sense, it is important the provider has specific skills. We at Language Reach believe that the following skills are essential when it comes to legal translators:

  • Be competent or have knowledge of the legal systems in both countries (source language and target language).
  • Be knowledgeable in the particular legal writing style of the target language.
  • Be familiar with the specific terminology used in the text
  • Be able and willing to define and search out legal concepts in the source language that may not have an equivalent term in the target language or its legal system.
  • Decode the text provided in the source language and write it in the target language without deviating from the original meaning, even if an exact translation of the text is not possible.
  • Understand the intended use of the translation, as this will affect the approach adopted by the translator as well as the document itself. The purpose of the translation will affect the terminology, syntax, tone, phraseology and many other parameters.
  • Understand that legal language has a tendency to spell things out, with attention to every single detail. In legal discourse every single detail must be stated explicitly and the translation has to reflect this and avoid the temptation of reducing the number of words or excluding texts that sound redundant, as these texts normally serve an important purpose.

Different cases of legal translation

When translating legal documents, it is crucial to be aware of its legal background and the special legal terminology relevant to its specific field of law. Here are some of the most usual cases of practical translation:

  • Investigation of documents or court sentences in penal proceedings. Sometimes there is the need to translate these kinds of documents in order to request international judicial assistance. It is important to note the difference between criminal and civil proceedings here, as the terms may seem similar but be very different.
  • Personal administrative documents in order to enforce a right in a foreign country. These documents include birth certificates, divorce decrees, educational certificates or diplomas, work references or testimonials, police reports among others.
  • Foreign court decisions
  • Trade contracts, which are signed in order to transmit licenses or sell goods. If a company wants to open a branch in another country then it has to translate the Shareholder books or Articles of incorporation, and extracts from commercial registers.
  • International treaties

Lawyers expect translators to produce texts in the target language with the same legal effect as in the original texts. Therefore, the most important task of the translator is to produce a text in the target language that is precise and transparent enough to lead to the same legal effects in practice.