precision in legal translations

Legal Translation is more than just knowing two languages

Caitlin Nicholson

Anyone who has read a legal brief knows that the law is many things, but it is first and foremost a battery of densely packed language in complicated arrangements.

The law is also an adversarial plane where battles and fortunes are won and lost on the basis of definitions. Legal translation is, therefore, not a realm where close enough is good enough. Like all good legal writing, good legal translation leaves no loop holes (except those you intended), uses terms precisely (except those you wish to be vague), and draws clean lines (unless you want them blurred).

When translating into different languages, many terms often lack exact, one-for-one equivalents. What’s black and white in English might be hei-and-bai in Chinese, which is sort of black and white, but more like dark and light.

Skillful legal translation is, therefore, not just a matter of knowing two languages; it’s a matter of knowing two languages well enough to make the precise legal point that serves your client’s interest. Incongruity is an essential aspect of legal terminology. Legal terms reflect legislation couched in specific cultures and histories, reflecting the societies in which legislation is enacted and those societies’ legal traditions.

Disagreement between legal readings can arise from different historical experiences and subsequent asymmetry of legal frameworks ranging from near equivalence to complete opposition. All of this makes accurate legal translation a challenge suited only to the most adroit experts.

On occasion, a familiar legal expression in a source language might have no precise equivalent in the target language. In such cases, even if a literal translation is theoretically possible, it might make no legal sense. A good legal translator will often have to define the legal concept, paraphrasing in full sentences what the source document expresses in mere words.

Professional legal translators require more than just the extensive linguistic training required of all translators. They must also be exceptionally good writers with a thorough technical mastery of two distinct syntactic structures, two sets of grammar, two logic systems, and two vast vocabularies. Legal translation employs two sets of terms, each as difficult to master as the other.

If your firm works in multiple languages, your legal translator should understand the culture and history of your clients’ home country and that country’s unique legal history and tradition. Always ask for credentials and qualifications to be sure that your translation service can provide you with translated documents that are just as precise as the original text.

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