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7 things you should know about legal document translation

7 things you should know about legal document translation
Home » Blog » Document translation » 7 things you should know about legal document translation

For anyone who has ever spent any time trying to get to grips with a legal document, you’ll know what hard work it can be.


Even a contract of only a few pages can take a good few hours (and even more cups of tea) to wade through. The sentences are often long and complex and contain a lot of legalese.  This makes legal documents some of the most difficult to translate. As such, it’s essential that you choose a translation agency that is experienced in legal translations, with qualified legal translators available. They should have a legal academic background and an in-depth knowledge of both the target country’s legal system and the legal system that the original document was intended for.


Translating legal documents is essential for businesses wishing to import or export goods.


Although most people normally think of legal documents being used in courts, there are many situations that require translations of legal documents such as terms & conditions and business contracts.


When a legal document is translated into another language, the meaning must remain exactly the same. Even minor changes could have potentially catastrophic consequences and could severely damage the reputation of your business.

How to choose the right legal document translation services provider

1. Hire a highly knowledgeable expert

Hiring a translator who is fluent in the original language of your document and the language your legal document will be translated into is simply not enough.

When choosing a translator for legal content, it’s essential to use someone who has the necessary legal expertise to correctly translate your document. They should know the legal terminology for both languages, and be able to create sentences in the target language that accurately reflect the meaning and intention of the original sentences.

There’s no room for error when it comes to legal translation. Get one term wrong and you could put your business and reputation in danger or open your business up to legal action, and considerable financial costs.

2. Experience of the legal translation process

Translating any document requires a range of skills, not just fluency in another language. For example, translators also have to be able to interpret meaning and re-write content to reflect this, as many word-for-word translations simply don’t make sense.

Additionally, legal documents must conform to their own cultures and legal systems. Changes to translated documents may be required, so that they conform with other legal systems.

3. Linguistic structures of the source language might not have direct equivalents 

English legal documents are usually written in the passive voice and often consist of many long and complex sentences. When translating into a language that mainly uses the active voice, there could be potential for confusion.

An experienced legal translator should be able to overcome this and ensure that the original meaning and purpose of the legal document is still apparent to those who read it in the target language.

It’s also of the utmost importance for the translation to retain the same tone as the original. For example, if an urgent legal notice comes across as not severe enough in the target language, the reader may not understand the severity of the situation and may not act.

4.  Able to accept strict deadlines

Often, legal documents need to be translated within strict timescales, so it’s important to opt for experts who have the necessary experience to undertake the complex task of translating these documents quickly but accurately.

5. Numerous legal precedents

The law is constantly changing and evolving.

Common law is not written into statutes. In common law legal systems, such as in England and Wales, a legal case can bring about a new rule, known as a precedent. Precedents, which are often subject to interpretation, are then used by courts who are asked to decide similar cases in the future.

This makes it essential to use translators who keep up-to-date with all legal developments.

6. Good syntax and word selection are crucial

Miss out a comma or add a full stop where there shouldn’t be one and the whole meaning of the sentence could change.

This is demonstrated by the difference between the two sentences: ‘Let’s eat, Grandma!’ and ‘Let’s eat Grandma!’.  While the inclusion of a comma seems so minor at first, once you realise how greatly the two sentences differ in meaning, the comma’s importance increases; especially for Grandma!

Of course, the ramifications of a similar mistake in a legal document are far less humorous, but the idea is still there. Additionally, when translating from one language into another, the potential for mistakes like this increases; different punctuation rules for different languages. So for legal documents, it is vital that those responsible for the translation understand punctuation in both languages, and think about its impact on the meaning of the sentence.

7. Maintaining confidentiality

Many legal documents are highly confidential. If they were leaked or got into the wrong hands, your business transactions could suffer as a result.

For this reason, it’s vital to hire a professional translation agency that you can trust.

How NOT to translate a legal document

There are many stories about how an incorrect translation of a legal document has had serious consequences for those involved.

In fact, negotiations between the American and French governments in 1830 were hindered by mistranslation. The French verb ‘demander’ was at the centre of this fiasco. The verb is a ‘false friend’, meaning it looks like a word we know in English (to demand), but does not carry the same meaning; ‘demander’ means ‘to ask’.

When President Jackson received the message ‘Le gouvernement français demande…” – mistranslated by a secretary as “The French Government demands…” – he replied that as the French had the audacity to demand something from the American government, they would receive nothing. Fortunately, someone corrected the error and negotiations continued.

Ensuring that your legal document translation is accurate, is crucial. Translating legal documents is not the time to cut corners or costs.

If you would like to know more about our document translation services, or need a quote for any of our translation services, please get in touch on 01225 580 770.