In a highly interconnected, multicultural world, legal translations need to be unimpeachable (pardon the pun). As a bilingual legal practitioner, it’s tempting to translate your own legal documents. But this is a bad idea. Why? Because the gap between knowing two languages and being a translator is chasmic. And hiring a translator without legal experience is a big no-no too. Let’s examine this in more detail.
Why do you need a specialist legal translator?
Legal translations need to convey the meaning of words between languages and tackle complex legal concepts that would stump any translator lacking legal expertise. A translator can’t wake up one morning and suddenly decide legal translation will be the next string to their bow. And those who market themselves as legal translators because they’ve translated the odd terms of business, privacy statement, or employment contract should examine their conscience. Specialist legal translation takes years of ongoing training. While exceptional knowledge of both languages is the common denominator for all translators, legal texts require a strong grasp of both legal systems – something only a specialist legal translator or lawyer-linguist possesses.
Can’t I just do it myself?
Many legal practitioners can speak a second language, especially in mainland Europe, so they often attempt to do their own legal translations. But this is a big mistake. Speaking is not writing. Legal documents have to make sense to lawyers, judges, and other participants in the legal system of the source language and of the target language. So legal translators have two roles: conveying information efficiently to target-language readers and maintaining the legal meaning of the source text.
Another challenge is that while concepts in two legal systems might overlap, they’re rarely identical. What’s more, the legal concept might not even exist in the target-language system. This is unlike chemistry, where carbon monoxide is always carbon monoxide, medicine where a kidney is always a kidney, or aeronautical engineering where a fuselage is always a fuselage, no matter where you are in the world. While these areas of translation have their unique challenges, walking the functional-equivalence tightrope that legal translators have to do is not one of them. Complicated, right?
It might be tempting just to do it yourself. You know your law. But you usually won’t be as familiar with the nuances of the other legal system or the language it uses. Only a specialist legal translator or lawyer-linguist with experience of the law and language in both countries typically has this level of expertise.
A lot can go wrong if a legal translation is not fit for purpose. An asylum seeker’s application could be denied, a trade deal could get axed, your client’s purchase of their dream home could turn into a nightmare… all dreadful outcomes! And it’s unlikely your professional indemnity insurance will even cover you if this happens. After all, translation and law are separate professions.
The benefits of plain-language legal translation
A form of cognitive bias called ‘the curse of knowledge’ means it can be harder for highly knowledgeable people in a specific subject to convey that information to others who lack this knowledge. Lawyers are particularly guilty of this. Hiring a professional legal translator will ensure you communicate effectively to all your readers, including laypeople, while not falling foul of the law.
Time is of the essence
Besides their complexity, legal translations often have strict deadlines. It’s essential to get them right bang on time. There’s no breathing space to become familiar with the ins and outs of two legal systems and two languages while the clock is ticking. But specialist legal translators are used to working under pressure. They know where to find answers and have a slew of translation techniques at their disposal. Their software skills are second to none, and they rely on glossaries and translation memories they’ve built up over the years working on similar documents. They aren’t reinventing the wheel.
While many deadlines in life may be flexible, missing a legal one can jeopardise or even torpedo your case or transaction.
Hiring an experienced legal translator means you’ll be able to deliver legal translations on time. Unexpected changes to your workload won’t derail your translations. A good legal translator will discuss the needs of your project upfront and give you a timeframe for delivery – leaving you to carry on with your better-paying work, safe in the knowledge that your translations will arrive on time and in shipshape.
Attention to detail
Almost nowhere is attention to detail as necessary as in legal translation. I’ve written about how a single word or punctuation mark can upend the outcome of legal cases. This is doubly true when the thorny issue of translation rears its head. There is zero room for ambiguity. Unfortunately, differing legal systems and tricky linguistic issues amplify the chance that ambiguities will creep into your translations. When you add to this potent mix that laws change all the time, only a specialist legal translator or lawyer-linguist could stay up to date with all these nuances.
Confidence in quality
Let’s face it, preparing case or transactional documents is time-consuming and stressful at the best of times. Why add to these stresses and time pressures by burdening your team with translation duties they’re not best placed to perform? Or by outsourcing them to a translator lacking legal knowledge?
And if you think DeepL or other neural machine translation systems have cracked the code of comparative law, think again. Sure, they can help speed up the process for certain legal documents, but the output still needs careful editing by a specialist in both law and language. Left in the wrong hands, they’re a recipe for disaster.
By hiring a professional legal translator, you take labour-intensive, complex work off your firm’s plate and can be confident you’ve hired someone who knows what they’re doing and will deliver translations you can trust.
Why work with me?
As a lawyer-linguist with dual qualifications in law and translation, I speak your language: the language of the law. I’ve walked in your shoes. I understand confidentiality, urgency, and the repercussions of not delivering on time. Been there, done that. I know what questions to ask, and I’m not afraid to ask them. Because you’re only human too, I’ll act as your safety net by spotting and questioning legal and linguistic issues in your text. And I’m used to working to tight deadlines, using persuasive language, and bridging linguistic divides.
When you work with me, I’ll help you navigate the pitfalls of working across two legal systems and provide plain-language translations your clients will understand. Clear translations that retain necessary terms of art but shun unnecessary legalese.
As well as making sure no meaning is lost or distorted in translation, I can improve the structure and design of your legal texts for ease of reading. Your translated documents will impress judges and fellow lawyers, build trust with clients, and help your business grow with word-of-mouth recommendations.
Like what you hear? If you need Dutch or Portuguese legal documents translated into English, get in touch to find out more.