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The Basics of a Legal Translation

Updated: Nov 22, 2020

Why is the legal translation so important?

Legal translation is one of the more specialized and important fields of translation. Legal translators have often spent time within the legal world at another earlier stage of their careers and their acquisition of legal terminology and understanding of legal practices stands them in good stead. So, why is legal translation so important? The legal profession cannot afford to have any of their important documents translated incorrectly. The consequences of an inaccurate translation can be significant. Business contracts may be delayed or cancelled. Court documents may be misrepresented and defendants may be sent to jail, or get off scot free simply because of poor translation. 

Types of Legal Translation

The meaning of legal translation is any kind of translation that involves translating documents that have a legal nature. The following list gives an idea of just how varied the sorts of documents there are that could be offered for legal translation.

  • Acts of Parliament, new legislation, laws and case reports;

  • briefs, summonses and judgments that are needed in court;

  • contracts, licenses and other business documents

  • Correspondence of a legal nature;

  • depositions;

  • immigration documents;

  • litigation documents;

  • trusts;

  • wills;

  • witness statements.

A legal translator must have in-depth knowledge of two or more  legal systems 

Legal translation is rarely a straightforward literal affair of substituting words and phrases from one language into another. The two main aspects of legal translation that make it such a difficult and challenging profession is that the translator must be able to understand the legal terminology used in both the source and target languages as well as be acquainted with the nuances of the law in both countries where these two languages are used. 

Knowledge of the law allows the translator to creatively adapt to references to legal terms in the document they are translating which have no immediate equivalent in the legal system of the country where the target language is prevalent. There may be no equivalent at all, in which case it is the translator’s responsibility to work around the differences posed.

What sorts of skills are relevant to a good legal translator?

A good legal translator would be expected to have;

  • fluency in both the source and target languages;

  • a sound background in the field of law in which the translator specializes;

  • thorough understanding of the legal system of the target country;

  • mastery of the legal terminology used in both legal systems;

  • a willingness to advance own expertise.

Understanding the importance of legalese

Legal professionals use large numbers of terms that are very specific to the area or field of law they specialize in. Many words and phrases in this ‘legalese’ may be found nowhere else, or have a specific meaning only in the legal document that is used for a particular reason. In many cases, this legalese is actually confined to what is on a document, i.e. the printed form, whereas when lawyers describe or communicate about the particular aspect of law, they may use easier or more familiar ways of doing so. Unfortunately for the legal translator, they are tasked with dealing with the written or printed text, so must become masters of legalese themselves and doubly so, because they need to do it in two or more languages.

Legal language and translation for the overseas market

Lawyers are not expected to be able to be translators as well as lawyers. When lawyers need to work across languages, whether within the same country or between different countries, they are more or less dependent on the skills and expertise of the legal translator. The challenges posed depend of course not just on the differences in the languages but between the legal systems, too. To take a simple example, many of the countries that were originally colonized by Britain share a significant amount of British laws as well as their own. The legal translator may still need to translate documents from English into Malay or Hindi, for example, but the challenge of interpreting legal differences would be less than that needed from English to Japanese or Arabic. 


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