What is Legal Translation and When Do You Need It

Chidinma Egwuogu
17 May 2023

7 min. read


Translation mistakes can be costly. This is especially true in the field of legal translation.

But what is legal translation? Is it different from other types of translation? What documents require legal translation?

The article answers all of these questions and offers legal translation tips from Centus experts.

Pro tip: Before going international, ensure your legal documents are ready for translation. A professional legal translation management system, like Centus, makes this easier. Learn more.

Let’s get started with a definition of legal translation.

What is legal translation?

Legal translation is an accurate translation of legal documents to preserve their original legal meaning and context. Legal translation is distinct from literary or general translation, which focuses on non-legal content like books, articles, or marketing materials. It requires a deep understanding of legal terminology and concepts, as well as fluency in the source and target languages. what is legal translation?

There are four main types of legal translation:

  1. Certified legal translation involves translating documents that have to be vetted and certified by an organization or entity to assure their accuracy. These translations are frequently required to be notarized or accompanied by a statement of the translator's credentials.
  2. Legal document translation entails translating legal documents from one language to another while maintaining the intended meaning for use in legal contexts.
  3. Legal transcription is the process of converting spoken language from legal scenarios, such as court proceedings or witness testimony, into written text for translation into another language.
  4. Legal localization involves adapting legal text beyond translation to respect cultural differences and ensure your messages are relatable and accessible to target audience.

When do you need legal translation?

Legal translation is needed to:

  • ensure compliance with local laws and regulations
  • facilitate clear communication with international customers
  • protect the interests of businesses in cross-border transactions and disputes
  • establish a local presence
  • engage in mergers and acquisitions
  • form international partnerships
  • manage employment and immigration matters
  • protect intellectual property (IP) rights

Legal translation vs literary translation

While both types of translation require linguistic proficiency, legal translation demands specialized knowledge of legal systems, terminology, and concepts. Unlike literary translation, legal translation must be precise and accurate to ensure that the legal intent of the original document is maintained.

Legal translators must also maintain a formal tone in their documents, and try their best to translate into the active voice with deference to the local context.

Literary translation also differs from legal translation in style. Literary translators have more creative leeway in their work, while legal translators must be precise.

Documents legal translation

Legal translation is required for various documents to ensure that they comply with local laws and regulations and are accurately understood by the target audience.

The types of documents that may require legal translation include: documents requiring legal translation

1. Contracts

These include sales contracts, employment contracts, distribution agreements, partnership agreements, non-disclosure agreements (NDAs), and service-level agreements (SLAs).

2. Business documents

Documents such as articles of incorporation, bylaws, shareholder agreements, minutes of meetings, annual reports, and merger or acquisition documents may require translation. Legal translation of business documents is especially necessary if they are open to stakeholders or the public.

3. Intellectual property documents

Patent applications, trademark registrations, and copyright materials may need translation to ensure compliance with local intellectual property laws.

4. Legal disputes and litigation papers

Legal briefs, court documents, witness transcripts, legal rulings, arbitration documents/awards, and expert reports may need translation in cases of international legal disputes.

5. Regulatory compliance documents

Organizations operating in multiple jurisdictions often need to translate documents related to regulatory compliance, such as environmental, health and safety, data protection, and industry-specific regulations.

6. Privacy policies and terms of service

To comply with local data protection (like the GDPR) and consumer protection laws, websites, and online services frequently require localized privacy policies and terms of service.

7. Official certificates and records

Birth, marriage, and death certificates, as well as academic transcripts, diplomas, and other official documents, may require translation for various purposes, such as immigration, employment, or education.

8. Immigration and visa documents

Applications for visas, work permits, residency permits, and other immigration-related documents may need to be translated to comply with local immigration requirements.

After translation, these documents often require notarization, depending on the jurisdiction.

9. Tax and financial documents

Financial statements, annual reports, tax filings, and audit reports may require translation for international business purposes or cross-border financial activities.

10. Insurance policies

Insurance policies and claim forms may need to be translated to ensure that they are legally valid and understandable for a local audience.

11. Marketing materials and user agreements

To comply with local consumer protection laws, marketing materials, user manuals, and end-user license agreements (EULAs) may need translation.

12. Codes of conduct and ethical guidelines

Organizations may need to translate their codes of conduct and ethical guidelines to ensure that international employees and stakeholders understand and adhere to these standards across all locations.

6 Factors to consider in legal translation

Image showing factors to consider in legal translation Legal translation is a complex and challenging task that requires meticulous attention to detail, deep understanding of legal systems, a high degree of linguistic proficiency, and a comprehensive translation management system (TMS).

As a result, there are several factors that should be considered when embarking on legal translation projects, they include:

1. Untranslatable concepts

untranslatable concepts One of the main challenges in legal translation is dealing with untranslatable concepts—terms or phrases that have no direct equivalent in the target language. These concepts may be deeply rooted in the source country's legal system, culture, or history, and can’t be translated without risking warp in definition.

To effectively address untranslatable concepts, a skilled legal translator should provide a clear explanation or description in the target language, even if it means using the passive voice.

The translation should provide as much context and detail as possible. This explanation may be attached as a footnote or added to the glossary.

2. Translation vs. transcreation

Legal translation often requires a compromise between direct translation and transcreation. translation vs transcreation While a direct translation reproduces the source text as closely as possible, transcreation takes cultural differences and local legal interpretations into consideration. For example, some legal implications found in Western law are untranslatable in Islamic law.

The choice of translation method depends on the situation. Some aspects of a source document may not require any additional nuance, while others will.

3. Regional variations of legal concepts

Different jurisdictions may have distinct legal concepts and terminology, which can complicate the translation process. For example, a term or concept that exists in one legal system or source language may not have an exact equivalent in another, making it difficult to find a suitable translation.

This is where a professional language services provider comes in. And research too. regional variations You’ll need extensive research and consultation with local legal experts to accurately convey the meaning of complicated or regionally specific legal concepts.

4. Confidentiality

Legal documents can contain trade secrets and sensitive information. So, confidentiality and discretion are factors you should consider when choosing translators and a TMS. confidentiality Your chosen translation management service should have strict confidentiality policies and procedures, such as non-disclosure agreements and secure cloud storage systems.

5. Regional regulations for legal translators

In some jurisdictions, legal translators may be required to hold credentials or memberships in professional organizations to show their competency and credibility. regional regulations For example, in Spain, the Spanish Ministry of Foreign Affairs must certify any official translator. But this isn’t so in the U.S.

It’s essential that you research regional laws when picking translators, so your document/project isn’t rendered invalid from the start.

6. Translation management system (TMS)

A TMS is vital for ensuring accurate, timely, and professional legal translations. They help you automate workflows, facilitate collaboration between you, your in-house team, and your translators, and provide tools for quality control and project management. tms Here are some key features of an effective TMS for your legal translation projects:

  • Centralized platform: A TMS provides a single platform for you to access and manage all project-related tasks, communications, and resources, making it easier to stay organized and consistent.
  • Collaboration and tool integration:Your TMS should also have collaboration and integration tools to help you share files and feedback across different teams.
  • Security and confidentiality measures: Your TMS should have stringent security protocols and implement confidentiality policies to safeguard sensitive legal information, such as encrypted data storage and secure access controls.
  • Customizable workflows: The system should let you design unique workflows that are tailored to the particular requirements of your legal translation projects.
  • Quality control features: To guarantee that legal translations meet the highest standards of accuracy and professionalism, your TMS should provide tools for proofreading, editing, and review.
  • Scalability: An efficient TMS should be scalable, allowing for bigger projects, additional languages, and more users as your company expands and your legal translation requirements change.

Pro tip: Pick a professional TMS that has all these features before you start your legal translation process. Try Centus.

By leveraging a robust translation management system, businesses can improve their legal translation processes, and maintain high-quality output, while expanding to other markets.

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