How NOT to translate legal texts

As a translation agency, we accept requests for translation of legal documents on a daily basis and deal with text such as contracts, litigations, legislations, wills, various types of certificates, and many more.

Legal translation is a field most sensitive to error, the consequences of which may be far-reaching and in certain cases disastrous. Therefore, such texts must be approached with caution and commissioned to linguists with suitable background knowledge.

There are certain aspects of the legal translation process that pose a risk of error and below we discuss ways to avoid them and their consequential damage.

  • Literal translation of legal jargon specific to every language and developed over the centuries may result in serious deviations from the intention of the source Idiomatic phrases particular to legalese should first have their meaning established and be translated accordingly. The following are examples of phrases that would hardly ever benefit from literal translation into any language:

 in my custody (‘under my supervision’)

 witness my hand (‘in my presence’)

  • Synonymous words with minute differences in meaning used interchangeably, or opposite terms confused in often complex legal discourse, may cause ambiguity and disrupt further legal proceedings.

If there is an appeal, the appellant, logically, will be the party who has lost in the first instance, while the winner will be respondent. However, since either the plaintiff or defendant can win or lose at first instance, the translator should be careful not to confuse identities of appellant and respondent, even though their roles appear to be reversed.

In law, injury may relate to people’s body, but surprisingly, rights can suffer injury too. The physical sense may be distinguished from the moral by adding the adjective personal or bodily.

Harm and damage are close synonyms. Both are uncountable and examples of use are as follows: ‘His rights suffered damage’. ‘Her goods suffered damage’. Damages in plural, however, has an entirely different meaning, synonymous to ‘compensation’.

  • Translators must beware miscomprehension or misalignment of the relationships between words and phrases in lengthy, complex sentences and intricate syntax, so characteristic to legal discourse, such as the following passage:

The Licensor acknowledges and agrees that the Licensor may, at any time, be privy to confidential information including but not limited to (a) the production, development and/or exploitation of the Programme and/or any ancillary matters; (b) the general and/or business affairs of the Group; (c) participants and/or contributors to the Programme; and/or (d) this Agreement, and the Licensor agrees that the Licensor will not, by any means whatsoever, communicate or divulge to any person (including a company) or make use of or permit any other person to make use of any confidential information, (save for by its professional advisers or as ordered by a court of competent jurisdiction) by any means at any time.

Even if reordering of phrases or of parts of sentences is required to maintain different stylistic conventions of the target language, one must ensure the relation between particular items is retained in the translation, for a single slip can redirect liability or at least result in confusion and deem a legal document void.

  • Certain source language expressions may not have precise equivalents in the target language, as in the case of the terms tipper and tippee in the following example:

Insiders (‘tipper’) may be liable for communicating or tipping material, non-public information to a third party (‘tippee’).

In many languages, direct equivalents of the terms with acceptable usage in a similar context will not exist and an attempt to coin a corresponding term might result in an awkward word, inappropriate in the high register of a legal language. Therefore, these terms would need to be paraphrased as, for instance, ‘person disclosing confidential information’ and ‘person receiving confidential information’ respectively.

  • Difficulties may arise due to differences in legal systems in the countries of the source and the target languages. These can be explained by means of translator’s note.
  • Missing Notary Public certification, which is required for certain purposes. The translation will not serve its function if not accompanied by a separate notarial document with original signature.

The above are several of the most common pitfalls we come across while translating legal documents. It is of utmost importance that legal translators are familiar with and approach with sensitivity both source and target legal jargons, which are often characterized by dissimilar usages in terminology and various styles of writing, necessitating appropriate adjustments by the translator. The ability to see through the source text and to aptly interpret its wording and possible ambiguities is another desired quality of a linguist undertaking a legal translation, the absence of which may give rise to altered information and consequently different from the intended function of the text produced.

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