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The two major challenges to overcome with legal translation

Scales of justice
in Legal

As international trade continues to expand and offer new, untapped possibilities, more organisations are beginning to rethink the way they work. Everything takes on a global slant, with executives wising up to the fact that there are plenty more opportunities to be found overseas.

There are demands to consider as well though, because while a borderless position allows enterprises to grow and diversify their product or service offerings – as well as boost and multiply their revenue streams – it also forces them to rethink existing practices and face up to new commitments and challenges.

Specifically, legal translation emerges as a key area, an agenda item even. There is, at a very base level, a need for various documents to not just be multilingual but also relevant, legally speaking, to numerous target countries.

Given that it is an extremely complex area and, against the backdrop of globalisation, an increasingly important consideration for business leaders, legal translation requires a high level of expertise, a particular skill-set and a knowledge base that is extensive.

In this article, we take a look at two of the key challenges that a translator has to overcome when transforming legal content from one language to another: the difference between one legal system and another and the unique vocabulary of the sector.

The backdrop

2014 survey by the law firm Hogan Lovells, entitled Global Currents: Trends in Complex Cross-Border Disputes, reported that cross-border legal disputes are far too common these days, and, at least for now, is unfortunately a growing trend.

In some respects, given the inherent complex nature of the law – more so within an international framework – this isn’t entirely surprising. There is a lot to take on board, a lot of channels and stakeholders to go through and, as a result, more chances for things to go wrong.

What the findings of this poll reinforce is the importance of legal translation because, just when you think everything has gone to plan, even the smallest, most insignificant mistake in a document (or ambiguous turn of phrase) can have a devastating impact.

It can, by way of example, delay deals, damage relationships and render documents invalid. When you’ve spent a lot of time and money in negotiating an important contract, any one of these setbacks can be traumatic.

As such, investing in a specialist, with the ability to deliver a multifaceted approach to legal translation – considering everything from legal system variances and legalese – is vital if organisations want to minimise exposure to risk.

Challenge one – one legal system to another

In an essay on the difficulties of intercultural legal communication, Alenka Kocbek, from the University of Primorska in Slovenia, said that if you consider the legal system as being an essential part of any given culture, a legal translator has to have “thorough knowledge” of the legal systems involved in a particular translation project.

This is because there are marked differences in many countries with respect to their legal systems, despite there being many similarities. Being aware of nuances is indispensable to ensure that documents are appropriately translated into the target language – and in respect of its laws – while maintaining the original meaning.

One of the most difficult aspects of translating between legal systems concerns conceptual differences, namely the absence of an equivalent concept in the target language.

As Ms Kocbek noted: “A significant example of a broad and extremely significant concept which is fundamental to continental law, especially to the Romano-Germanic legal systems, but has no equivalent in common law is the law of obligations, which has been developed over the centuries on the basis of Roman law elements.

“Similarly, a part of the English legal structure, i.e. equity, has no exact counterpart in continental law, as most of its concepts and legal rules are unique and have no parallels in any other legal system.”

Navigating your way through this maze takes real skill, highlighting both the value and inherent need for organisations to secure the services of a company that specialises in legal translation.

Moreover, developing a long-term relationship is especially advantageous, as the more confident you become in one another – the service provider understands the unique demands of a particular organisation – the more confident everyone is in the quality and accuracy of the translation between legal systems.

Challenge two – the uniqueness of legal language

The late David Mellinkoff, a notable lawyer who was described by the New York Times as “the enemy of legalese” in his obituary, was a fierce critic of lawyerly language, arguing that by its very nature, it is extremely difficult to understand, arcane and ultimately confusing.

He had a point. Legal terminology is certainly distinct in its construct; often only understood clearly by lawyers themselves. Needless to say, when it comes to translating the unique vocabulary of one legal language into the lexicon of another, translators, more than capable of delivering results, will have their work cut out.

Again, this underscores their invaluableness to organisations in need of legal translation. Being, for example, fluent in at least two languages, understanding the particulars of two legal systems and being able to comprehend, with skill and authority and types of legal languages is exceptional to say the least.

Consider also the particulars of lexical (idioms, phrases), structural (grammatical particles) and cultural considerations, and once more, you can really begin to grasp how delivering language-relevant legal text is a remarkable feat.

Legal and linguistic accuracy is paramount to guarantee that when content is translated from one language to another, the target document is consistent, faithful to the original and articulated using the correct legal terminology.

The brilliance of legal translators

Translation, as a whole, is a demanding endeavour, but add to that a legal element, and it’s an entirely different ball game, one that is, from the outset, more exacting with – if done wrong – some dire consequences indeed.

Approaching legal translation should therefore be done in a timely manner, with the right resources and expertise selected to ensure that when it comes to the end of any given project, you can be confident that the multilingual document you have in your hand is of the kind of quality you can pride yourself on.

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