Legal Translation SME Saves the Day

legal translation SMELawyers and judges have their own language and though the purpose is clarity, the results aren’t always clear to outsiders. But a lot is at stake with that legal lexicon; court challenges can hinge on the interpretation of a few words, even without the additional burden of translating from one language to another. Translating legal documents presents unique challenges and responsibilities for the translator.

Legal Language

Globalization has increased the need for translating a variety of legal documents for businesses and individuals, including common legal instruments such as contracts, regulations, court transcripts, wills and immigration documents. Some countries require that legal documents be available in more than one language. English legal language prevails in most translations of the law; it’s the language used most broadly in the international community.
Most legal language in English common law has roots in French, English and Latin — when law was primarily an oral practice, lawyers needed to be trilingual. As writing and printing became more dominant, eventually overtaking oral arguments in importance, the use of French and Latin for law waned in favor of English. Another result of transitioning to the written word was increased emphasis on the precision of legal language.
The vocabulary of the legal profession evolved into a complex lexicon that is often obscure for laypersons, with many words having unique meanings in law than the meanings they have in ordinary usage. An “in camera” hearing, for example, means one closed to spectators. “Continuing” a court case refers to suspending or postponing it. In the European Union, translators found that even using the word “court” had to be managed for general understanding between countries.

Challenges for the Legal Translator

Part of the challenge in translating technical language is finding equivalent terms or words in the target language. Accurate translation requires having a grasp of the subject at hand and the terminology of both the language being translated (the source language) and the target language. For legal documents, the issue of equivalency is amplified. Legal terms in one language may not translate verbatim and the translator may need to review a similar concept. Sometimes a legal concept in one country may not have any equivalent in another (an issue that arises often in international agreements). Resolving these issues requires a firm grasp of the legal matters at hand.

Subject Matter Expertise

The consequences of an error in translating a legal document can be severe, resulting in financial losses, lawsuits, protracted legal proceedings and the kind of legal quagmires that we all want to avoid. Hiring a legal translation SME (subject matter expert), for both the source language and target language, should be an essential part of your plan when you need legal translation services.
While your legal SME translator doesn’t need to be a lawyer, neither is fluency in both languages adequate preparation. The translator should understand the intent of the document, be familiar with legal terminology for both languages, and be aware of cultural differences in the legal systems. An experienced SME translator may have files with similar documents to call on for reference.
For complex documents, a translator might work with an editor with similar qualifications, to review the translation in draft and final forms. Legal documents are meticulously prepared by qualified legal professionals; the same rigor should be applied when these documents are translated.


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