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Business Translation Essentials

Updated: Dec 18, 2022

Global business is a reality and it is expanding. The economic benefits of a global economy do not come without their challenges, however, and businesses must deal with the translation of business and legal documents into numerous target languages. These translations entail a number of critical elements that may not be found in many other translation categories.

Items that may fall in the realm of business or legal translation include patent documents, depositions, contra, application letters, birth certificates, strategy guides, marketing, and advertising, and even financial statements.

Translators who work on business documents must not only have native-level fluency in the languages in which they work but understand the legal and field-specific terminology used in the documents and comprehend the cultural and legal systems involved.

Business Translation Considerations


The language of business and law is different than the language spoken by most people on the street. Documents are rife with specific terms, each with a clear and distinct meaning and a simple change in a word’s context could have disastrous results. When these words are translated from language to language, it is important to know the unique legal language of the target country and jurisdiction. This becomes even more critical when dealing with patents and specialized fields.

Consider the difficulty drawing up probate documents in the Yoruban language where everybody who is older than you is simply referred to as “bàbá” or “ìyá” (father or mother). The Chinese word “bixu” can mean must, shall, may, or should. The wrong translation could create very different meanings for a legal contract or business document.

In just the biotechnology field, there are thousands of patents filed each and every year. Those with errors take vast amounts of time and effort to fix. In the worst cases, improper terminology can cause a patent to be rejected, lost, or challenged in court.

For example, the word ethyl and methyl have only a one-letter difference in English, yet it is an entirely different character in Chinese. When put into a long chemical string name that single character could be the difference between a formula working or not working, being toxic, or rendering a patent unenforceable.

In addition to specific lexemes, the tone, voice, and mood of the text could open the document up to varied interpretations.


How do you translate something that has no cultural significance? How would you explain “a snowball’s chance in hell” to somebody without an understanding of snow, a snowball, or your concept of hell? Ideas, boundaries, and time are not the same in all languages or cultures and this must be effectively accommodated.


Even small cultural faux pas can have major impacts. From embarrassment to outrage, a simple gaffe can sink a deal. Consider the Chinese word that sounds like “shi” in English. There are dozens of variants of that sound in China and some of them may be used offensively.


Most business documents are time-sensitive. Documents that miss deadlines are typically invalidated. You might have to start the process all over again if your work is not voided entirely.


The topics discussed in business and legal documents are confidential. You should ensure that your translation service has vetted their translators and have confidentiality agreements on file. The leaking or sale of information could be extremely detrimental to a business, patent, or marketing campaign.

Legal System:

Each country has its own legal system and no two are completely identical. Even countries that speak the same colloquial language can have vastly different legal languages and practices. Just consider the vast differences in jurisprudence between the English-speaking countries of the United States, Canada, and England.

It is imperative that your translator is familiar with the most current legal precedents and practices of the legal jurisdiction in which your documents will be filed or used.

The Chinese legal system does not always view the law as rigidly or as inflexibly as it is in the west. Issues that are simply understood in the west will need to be explicitly spelled out in a Chinese contract.

The Importance of Accurate Translations

The example is often used of the 1840 truce between the Maori chiefs in New Zealand and the British government. Each signed a translation of the contract in their own language. The result was that the British understood the Maori would “cede to Her Majesty the Queen of England absolutely and without reservation of all the rights and powers of sovereignty.” The Maori understood that they were only giving up governance NOT sovereignty. These issues are still being debated to this day.

The short of it is this: if you care about your business, when choosing a translator for your documents, ensure your translation service company has the expertise in the language, field, law, and culture of your target audience.

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