The Best Way to Get Legal Translations

By Katherine at Legal Language
Posted on 03/22/2010
In Legal Translation



man at table legal translationLegal translations require a higher level of accuracy than any other kind of translation.

This is because legal translations must serve as official documents for any kind of legal papers, including court evidence, birth certificates, contracts and scholarly writings.

The best legal translations are best produced by human translators. Here’s why:

Legal Translations Are Complex

Legal translations are inherently more complex than other kinds of translations because they often involve two systems of law.

Translators need to be cognizant of the legal systems in both the source language’s country and the target language’s country. A direct translation may not make sense, as the source text will have been written in a way which reflects that country’s culture and legal system.

It is the translator’s job to be sure that the same technical terms, reasoning and titles will be conveyed in a way that is legally valid.

Legal translations often need to convey the rights and duties of legal parties, so it is essential that everything is translated accurately. A single translation error could have far-reaching legal implications.

What’s more, when legal translations need to be used as evidence in court, certified translations are required.

Legal Translations Should Not Be Automated

Legal translations require thought and skill. When considering automated translations, the most important thing to remember is that a tool does not have the ability to think.

While using Google Translate or any other translation widget or program might be fine for getting the general idea of a website or document, it is far from being completely accurate.

Google Translate has made huge strides in improving automated translation, but even expert translators who gave the software favorable reviews know that there is a long way to go before machines can replace humans as the best translators.

An article by a translator in “Translation Journal” pointed out how important having a human translator is for certain documents, such as a Japanese patent that needed to be translated into English. A human translated part of the patent as this:

“(1) Figure 1 indicates a case when a metallic plate is used for a mask. In order to form pattern “a” with a corresponding mark “A” in metallic plate 4, the metallic plate must be formed with photoetching or a similar process, including a notch in the pattern, and bridge 11 must be formed to prevent partial detachment of the pattern from metallic plate 4.”

While the automated translation output the same sentence as this:

“circle 1.. In case of mask which uses metal sheet. You explain making use of Figure 1. pattern a which corresponds to mark “A” in metal sheet 4 is formed, the metal sheet 4 must be formed with photograph etching and not. As for this pattern b because of notch type, bridge 11 in order to prevent the coming out portion of metal sheet become necessary.”

Which excerpt makes more sense?

The Best Legal Translation Choice

For legal translation, and any other translation where accuracy is important, human translators are the best translators. Humans understand word meanings, phrasing, changes in verb tenses, and the concept (and importance) of accuracy.

When you are providing vital information — legal forms, government documents, company identities — isn’t it worth the extra time and money to get the best legal translation?


2 Responses to “The Best Way to Get Legal Translations”

  1. Annika Says:

    Thank you for making the translator’s argument against machine translation clear. These days, given the pressures of being internationally accessible, more and more companies are relying on online machine translation options to translate their websites and documentation – to comical if not disastrous effect.

    Machine translation can be useful and it can be beneficial for companies both with regards to time and money. However, it needs to be used alongside the skills of an experienced translator for it to produce a valid translation.

  2. Fernando Peral Says:

    In 2002, I submitted a detailed document to the UN Joint Inter-Agency Meeting on Computer-Assisted Terminology and Translation, in order to deal with the theme “THE IMPACT OF NEW TECHNOLOGIES ON LANGUAGE SERVICES: PRODUCTIVITY ISSUES IN TRANSLATION”. Already then, the issue of machine translation versus human translation was the topic of the day. Please, find an excerpt of that document that seem to me relevant to the subject of the post.
    “Productivity is a concept traditionally applied to industrial production chains, and is the basic element to assess a company’s competitiveness in a market, since it shows how efficiently factors of production are managed. But not even in an industrial process could productivity be measured by dividing the total output of the process by the representative magnitude of the factor; the basic element to consider any output is to assess how well the product meets the customer’s needs.

    How can productivity and competitiveness be measured in translation? Obviously, the number of “standard pages” of output alone, without considering the accuracy or the readability of the translation, would not mean much, since it could happen that the measured output does not achieve the basic purpose of translation. In order to obtain reliable information that could lead to sensible solutions in terms of cost-effectiveness and productivity, an analysis of the activity in terms of its purpose must be conducted.
    The purpose of translation: the functional equivalence

    In his work After Babel. Aspects of language and translation , George Steiner states that there are no “theories of translation”, and that the best one can hope for are reasoned descriptions of the process. He goes on to say that “languages appear to be much more resistant than originally expected to rationalization, as well as to the benefits of homogeneity and technical formalization”.

    In several of his works on linguistics and semiotics, Umberto Eco repeats, “a text is a machine conceived for eliciting interpretations” . This statement is one basic element for a proper consideration of the purpose of translation. That words, sentences and texts usually convey more than their literal sense is a commonly accepted phenomenon. Mere equivalence in meaning (if such an obscure notion could be defined and used) cannot be taken as a satisfactory criterion for a correct translation, because translating is not only connected with linguistic competence, but also with intertextual, psychological and narrative competence. For instance, Eco refers to one possible ”equivalent” re-wording of the expression “good morning” on meeting someone that could be the following: “In accordance with the phatic use of language and for reasons of courtesy I wish you an easy and happy day”. But clearly, the addressee would not perceive both messages in the same way.

    Things become even more complicated when it comes to translation. It is commonly accepted by linguists that lexical or syntactical forms expressing concepts in one language hardly ever have exact lexical or syntactical counterparts in another language, and that the structure of one language differs in this and many other ways from the structure of another language, so that translation can never be reduced to the mechanical substitution of one set of lexical and grammatical forms by another set in the other language. Similarity in meaning, which would be one of the aims of translation proper, can only be established by interpretation, and translation is a special case of interpretation. As David Savan remarked, interlinguistic translations do not concern a comparison between two languages, but the interpretation of two texts in two different languages.

    While carrying out translation work, the translator has constantly to make decisions in order to reach what Mason calls a “functional equivalence”, which means that the translation must generate in the target language the same effect aimed at by the original.


    [It is somewaht easy] to highlight the differences between stylistic values and expressive substance, and to explain that rhetoric recognizes figures of content, in which the substance of the expression is not pertinent (‘une chaleur froide’ translates very well as ‘a cold heat’), but that the substance of the expression becomes important in the majority of figures of expression (‘hace frío’ does not translate as ‘it makes cold’ but as ‘it is cold’).

    At this stage, the basic elements of any reasoning aimed at assessing productivity in translation are identified: translation is based on finding “functional equivalences” that require linguistic, intertextual, psychological and narrative competence; only human beings are capable of determining “functional equivalences”; productivity in translation is therefore instrinsically linked to the capacity of the translator to find the adequate functional equivalence, i.e., it is based on the quality of the translator.

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