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An introduction to legal translation

A law library
in Legal

There are hundreds of types of legal systems in the world today and while there are many similarities and shared histories, there are just as many distinctions that make them entirely independent of one another.

The difference between religious and secular law is one obvious contrast, the latter deriving its authority from humans, the former from an interpretation of a deity. However, as is indicative of the multifarious nature of legal systems, the divisions between the two are not absolute.

For example, Morocco operates a mixed legal system, based on both Islamic law and French law, while Saudi Arabia, predominately organised around Islamic law, has introduced some “secular codes” to complement its growing presence as a global player.

With the world becoming increasingly globalised, there is an even greater demand today for organisations looking to expand their reach to appreciate the legal implications of operating internationally. Legal translation is one of the key features of this and this article offers an introduction into what is an interesting and complex area.

Why legal translation matters

As we’ve established, there are many differences when it comes to legal systems in different countries. Add to that a language barrier, cultural factors and the unique terminology that underpins many documents – often referred to as legalese – and you can begin to appreciate the need for legal translation.

It is, after all, one of the most complex forms of translation, where even the slightest mistake, misinterpretation and ambiguity of a word or a phrase, can render a document void. As the cost of these errors, financial or otherwise (reputation, for example), can be significant, it is important that this process is as effective as possible.

Invest in specialists

In order to ensure that legal translation is handled appropriately, seeking the services of a specialist provider, with access to dedicated teams of legal translators, is essential.

This is because they will possess experience in both the legal system of the source country and target country; have in-depth knowledge of certain areas of law, such as litigation and corporate finance; and the ability to skillfully translate the meaning, style and tone of the document.

It’s no small task as legal documents, whether they concern intellectual property or mergers and acquisitions – bear legal liabilities. When a document is translated from one language into another, not only does it have to take into account the context of the target language and the unique features of the country’s legal system, it also has to have the same legal effect as the original document.

Be patient with legal translation

Given the inherent complexity of legal translation, it can be a time-consuming endeavour. While every case is unique, for the most part, when it comes to best practice, any undertaking needs to be organised in a very deliberate, methodical and paced way. If absolute quality and accuracy is required, then more time is going to be needed.

However, the reality of the situation is far less ideal. Many requests for legal translation are often made reactively or at the last moment, with many clients requesting a speedy turnaround. While this certainly increases risk, the industry has adapted to meet these needs and legal specialists can swiftly execute high-quality commissions in less than a day.

This isn’t ideal, so it pays to set up a long-term relationship with a language translation provider, especially if you recognise that making legal requests is going to be an important part of your business. Again, the importance of this is not to be underestimated – legal texts are often complex documents, requiring thorough examination of things like the semantic structure of a sentence and identifying terminology between two languages.

So there you have it, a brief introduction to legal translation. While it’s certainly not the easiest form of translation, it is one of the most important, and, as the world becomes ever smaller, it is likely it will become an integral part of everything you do. 

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