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Overcoming the challenging hurdles in legal translation

in Legal

As companies the world over look to move into an increasingly global workplace, the opportunities for expansion and growth as an entity is greater than ever before. With untapped markets suddenly opening up and new target audiences emerging, firms have more possibilities than have ever had to become a truly global company. 

However, this expansion overseas is not something that comes without its challenges. A global world, even online, does not automatically make for an accessible one, and companies are having to make sure they translate websites more often than ever before to unlock their opportunities. In one area of translation in particular, this can be particularly tricky. 

When it comes to legal issues, the online marketplace has exacerbated the problems that can occur between different jurisdictions. According to the Economist, an estimated 750 million cross-border legal disputes now take place every single year. Cross-border legal issues are difficult because laws differ greatly in meaning, tone and style from nation to nation, which is particularly problematic when the global nature of the internet brings up the barrier of language.

With this in mind, it's vital that companies are getting it right when it comes to their legal translation in particular. Legal translation is about more than just making a document multilingual; it also has to be able to have relevance legally in a number of different countries. 

Here, we take a look at just a few of the hurdles that a legal translator must overcome in order to tackle the complexity and difficulties involved with legal translation, and why these matter when it comes to getting it right. 

A more diverse skillset

Unlike in any other area of the translation sector, legal sector translators must possess a very wide range of skills and qualifications. Translating legal documents is less about just making sure you capture the meaning and essence of what has been said and put that over in another language. It requires the translator to capture every single little nuance, tone and intended meaning in the legal text, which tend to be far more complex than any other type of writing found anywhere else. 

We explore just a few of the more diverse skills and considerations that must be made by a legal translator in order to execute their job in a way that delivers a translation that is both useful and legally binding. 

The systems

One of the biggest issues when translating a document from one language to another is the fact that there is very little crossover when it comes to cross-border legality. Laws, even the most fundamental ones, are vastly different from country to country, as is their wording, meaning and tone.

Because legal systems in any given country tend to be drawn from documents written many years ago, and because they form the basis of any nation, it's hard for their to be any sort of international standard.

This means that the legal translator has a different job entirely from, for example, a financial translator. Because the world of finance is now so global, there tends to be best practice guides and codes of conduct that are used when documents are being laid out. This means that any translator who is working on a document from one nation will have a fairly good idea of how it should come across in another. 

The same cannot be said in law, where there tends to be no international standard for their writing. Nations like the UK, France and the US can be guilty, for example of using long-winded styles of writing when it comes to penning laws, while others use rather shorter sentence structures that are clearer and more concise. Going from one language to another in these circumstances can therefore be particularly difficult for the translator to grasp. 

The legal jargon

Another major issue that comes with translation for any company is when translation is simply not an option. That is to say that in the world of the law, there are often terms, according to Legaco, that are "untranslatable". Terms that are specific to the law of one nation and where legal documents are the only place they are used, it can be very hard to get around for legal translators. 

Examples of this kind of language include terms such as "habeus corpus", which is used in English and American legal systems and nowhere else in the world, throwing up problems when translating into any language other than English. 

A similar problem can come when a term is commonplace in one country's legal system but means something else entirely in other places. For example, when American contracts use the term "consideration"; this is clear across the board in the US, but would need a lengthy explanation even to be understood anywhere else in the world, again adding a complexity to the job of the translator. 

Meaning vs tone 

Any legal document, once translated must remain true to the original in terms of its absolute meaning. Any deviation from the original text can render a legal document useless, presenting loopholes that don't exist and conveying a different meaning entirely. Unlike any other document, legal translations must be consistent, fair, balanced and representative of the origin text. 

While in other texts, translators can simply interpret something literally in order to convey the point in another language, in legal papers this is impossible. Translations need to be legally correct rather than literal, retaining everything the original author meant to say both in meaning and severity of tone, which is something we don't find in any other type of translation work. 

Other challenges in meaning also occur when moving between drier and more expressive languages. For example, English speaking legal documents tend to be incredibly dry, to the point and yet somehow long-winded. Expressive language is rarely used, unlike languages like Spanish, where expression and description is commonplace. For anyone translating between the two, it can be a challenge to get the balance right. 


Translation is never a straightforward or easy task, requiring expertise and precision to deliver an accurate and useful document, regardless of the sector in question. 

However, when we add the element of law into the equation, the need for a more skilled and considerate translator becomes all the more acute. Translating legal documents is a minefield that requires skill, patience and an attention to detail unique to the legal market.

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