Challenges of Translating Legal Documents – What You Need to Know

Translating for the legal industry is often complex, requiring a depth of knowledge of technical terms and their underlying meanings that far surpasses other fields. In the legal industry, perhaps more than in any other, professional translations are necessary to ensure understanding and avoid significant potential liability associated with inaccurate information or misleading translations. 

Legal translation involves much more than taking written text and translating it into another language, word-for-word. Instead, it requires an in-depth understanding of the law and the legal terminology of the target country. A professional translator must be able to compare dual legal systems and languages to provide an accurate translation. Failing to translate legal documents and terms correctly can have significant adverse consequences on businesses and their professional reputations.

Options for Reliable Translations

The preferred approach to reliable translations of legal text is to allow time for an accurate and thorough human translation. Machine translation (e.g. translation via software with limited or no human involvement) can never meet the high expectations required of legal content. A human translation is necessary for properly capturing the nuances of legal text in one language and expressing that nuance in another.

One option for a human translation is to employ a lawyer with bilingual language skills to translate and work with the documents. However, the drawback of this option is that such lawyers may be in limited supply, too expensive, or the need may not warrant full-time help. Additionally, their attention may be better focused on the legal aspects of the case rather than the translation of documents. Whether a lawyer is performing legal or translation work, he or she usually charges his or her typical hourly fee for this work, which is then passed off to a client. The cost for hourly legal work usually far surpasses the costs of translation, making it prohibitively and unnecessarily expensive for attorneys to perform translation work.

A more affordable and efficient option is to use a professional legal translation service. This option positions a professional with a knowledge base in the language to translate the documents before beginning work.

Legal Documents That Require Accurate Translations

While all documents should always be translated properly, translation of legal documents require a higher level of professional experience and accuracy due to the greater risks associated with a mistranslation. Here are a few types of documents that should always be translated by a professional linguist with legal expertise:


Patents require precise language that designates a person or company’s intellectual property rights. Sometimes even a portion of a sentence in patent documents can make the difference between whether a patent will be enforceable or not. In a Mitsubishi Chemical Corporation case, the translation of one sentence determined the validity of contested claims when four different translations were considered. The court specifically dismissed one translation when the company failed to consult with a native speaker when making the translation.


Contracts are important legal agreements between two or more parties. If the contract is not fulfilled by one of the parties, the court must turn to this document to enforce the contract. Sometimes contract terms are mistranslated. In one public example, the Korean Trade Ministry failed to have the Korea-European Union Free Trade Agreement professionally translated. A later analysis of the translated agreement found 207 errors and 182 mistranslations. Sometimes just one word or term in a contract can make a difference, such as in one case in which drydocking was mistranslated as “tank washing,” resulting in significant losses to the Chinese company.

Immigration Documents

Immigration documents must typically include certified translations of the documents, such as birth records, employment records and personal reference letters. 

Financial Records

Financial records must also be carefully translated to ensure accuracy. Accurate translations of financial records are important for translation not only the numbers, but also the meaning of the numbers.

Safety Guidelines

Agencies like OSHA and similar agencies in other countries require strict compliance with their guidelines. If safety guidelines are not properly translated, workers could be injured and companies can be held liable for not meeting required standards.

Other legal documents for translation:

  • Wills
  • Medical Records
  • Joint Venture Agreements
  • Driving Licenses
  • Certificates (Birth, Marriage, Divorce, Death, etc.)
  • Summons
  • Trusts
  • Bills of Sale


As globalization continues to increase, the need for multilingual e-discovery becomes even greater. E-discovery is a process in which companies must gather important information and data relevant to a claim. This process requires a comprehensive understanding of two or more languages so that certain terms can be isolated to provide the most relevant results.