Legal translation - a beginner's guide

Obviously, you know what translation is – almost everyone will have heard of the concept of taking a document or speech in one language and translating it into another language. This is very much commonplace in today’s increasingly globalized world. But what about legal translation? If it has its own name, it must be important, right? 

Sure enough, legal translations are one of the most vital translations where it is important to get high accuracy. Finding someone who can give a good, accurate legal translation is vital.

What is legal translation?

Simply put, legal translation is translating documents, recordings, and paperwork from legal work. It really is that simple. However, the subject matter is what makes it so difficult. Legal language is rarely discussed outside of the legal field. You might have heard a few legal terms in everyday conversation, but only legal specialists are likely to know the full ins and outs of the terminology. This is why it is so important to make sure your legal translator has experience with legal language.

Translation or transcription?

Both translation and transcription are used in the legal field, but they are different disciplines. 

Transcription is the act of converting an audio or video file into a written document, which contains the words spoken. In the legal field, this often happens with witness reports, statements, meetings with clients, and more.

Translation involves changing a document from one language to another. Any official document in a different language to the main language used by the judicial system will need to be translated.

Often, in the legal field, items will need to be transcripted and translated. Unfortunately, this adds more steps to the process, and if there are more steps, it’s more likely that there could be an error. This is why it is so important to make sure you are using proper legal translators for legal work.

What makes someone a good legal translator?

A good legal translation expert will have a lot of skills that other translators may not have. Due to the specialist nature of the language, your translator must be familiar with legal vocabulary. This means legal terms from both the original language and the language you need the documents translated into. As well as this, a good translator should be fluent in both languages – and ideally native in one of them.

What is legal language?

The legal field has a lot of specialist terms. There are many reasons for this. Often, you will find that a lot of the language used in legal terminology is a throwback to ancient languages. Primarily the legal field uses a lot of Latin words, but they also use some ancient Greek terms. Some legal terms may even not be easily understood by people who have a good grasp of either of these languages though. 

So why does the legal field use archaic languages? There are many reasons. One of them is a respect for tradition, and for the traditional ways of doing things. Legal practice is rooted heavily in tradition. Using the same terminology is a good way to hark back to traditional roots. On the more practical front, the legal field is very similar to medical and scientific fields in that it uses specialist language for accuracy’s sake – rather than having to use multiple words to convey ideas, some concepts can be perfectly summed up by a single word or short phrase in Latin.

So a legal translator needs to know Latin?

Yes! And many other languages besides this – but not just the language itself. It is common that legal documents have to follow a certain pattern, a certain way of being filled out. Even blocks of text will have things laid out in a certain way. This means that it is important for a legal translator to be familiar with the legal systems of the countries where they are translating texts for. If they know the language but translate a document in the wrong format, it may be of no use to anyone, so always go with an expert.

Can machines do legal translations?

Translation software has improved massively over the last few years. Google Translate and other programs can help translate text easily, quickly, and cheaply. However, this is not always accurate. It can be very tempting to press a button and get a translation, but there have been many cases where a machine’s translation has actually caused more problems for the client, especially in the complex and specific legal field. This is why it’s always best to make sure a human is handling your translation.

Final thoughts

Legal translation is one field within translation where accuracy and knowledge are vital. Just like how you’d hire a lawyer to help you with paperwork, you should always get legal documents translated by an expert.