ULG's Language Services Blog

The Challenges of Legal Translation

Translating legal documents can be a challenging endeavor, especially for translators unfamiliar with the industry. Overcoming legal translation challenges requires a combination of creativity and accuracy that goes beyond normal translation requirements. The need to simultaneously manage incongruities with terminology, while articulating a precise meaning to maintain a legal definition, requires that those working on legal translation projects be well versed in both the target language and the structure of the target legal system.

Terms to Know

There is a lot of terminology that goes into legal translation. To a person new to this subject, many of the words revolving around legal translation may seem relatively similar. But the truth is, they are vastly different, if related, terms.

1) Translation: the process of converting written words from one language to another.

2) Localization: the process of adapting a product that has been previously translated into different languages to a specific country or region. Localization is formatting a document or creative piece to fit the target culture.

3) Legal Translation: is the translation of texts within the field of law. As law is a culture-dependent subject field, the work of legal translation and its products are not necessarily linguistically transparent.

When translating from one legal system to another, the likeness between the two legal systems has a bigger impact on the difficulty of the translation than the relatedness of the languages. Translators must be able to deal with challenges caused by the incongruity of a word’s definition once translated. Many legal expressions in the source language do not have a precise equivalent in the target language, and, as a result, a literal translation will not suffice. In these cases, translators are often forced to use a conceptual equivalent to articulate the legal term or concept. When necessary, translators should also include the original legal expression in its source language, in addition to paraphrasing the concept, to emphasize the legal expression.

Why is Legal Translation Different?

Legal documents written in English are often characterized by impersonal and formal tones, as well as complex-compound sentence structures that often involve multiple subjects. This writing style, while often necessary to convey the complexity of the subject matter, makes legal documents difficult to translate.

These difficulties are magnified when the target language has a different syntactical base. For instance, legal English is usually written in the passive voice and uses complex structures and prepositional phrases, which, when translated into a language that primarily uses the active voice, can cause confusion and even change the definition of the legal text if translated literally.

Legal translation services are one of the most challenging areas to provide in the field of translation. It combines the creativity required in literary translation with the precise terminology of technical translation. Translation of legal documents is a highly specialized task and as such requires a translator with extensive knowledge of both source and target legal systems to ensure that the desired legal results can be achieved.

4 Key Questions To Ensure A Successful Document Review