Translating legal documents requires a very specific skill set. It goes without saying that all professional translators must be fluent in both the original and the destination language; however, additional skills are required for those who translate documents for legal purposes. An intimate knowledge of the law and legal systems in both the original and destination countries is required, as is a meticulous level of attention to detail.
A translator who will be working on legal documents must be prepared for the fact that they could be dealing with any subject matter. Besides the legal jargon, processes and procedures that will be found in legal documents, the actual subject matter of the document itself could range from anything from a criminal matter involving assault or burglary, to a civil matter involving complex negligence or workplace disputes, to an administrative matter involving technical subjects like wireless technology, engineering or even biochemistry.
In some cases, experts in legal translation also need to be somewhat expert in medical translation in the event that a document relating to a personal injury, worker’s compensation claim or other medical lawsuit requires translation.
Apart from the specific and sometimes ranging skills that are required for translators who wish to specialise in translating legal documents, such translators also need to ensure that they do not take any shortcuts or liberties when it comes to translating the text.
A common issue that I have seen with any kind of translated text is the issue of a translator attempting to paraphrase the text. While this can be a problem with any document, it can be an enormous issue with grave ramifications in a legal context. The problem with paraphrasing is that the intent and the meaning of the sentence then changes, and inflection and intention are lost or skewed, compromising the reliability and accuracy of the document.
Another difficult issue relates to translators adding their own content (even just one or two words) in order to add or retain meaning to the original text. The issue with this is that the meaning that the translator makes from the original text is not necessarily the meaning that was intended by those who drafted the document. It goes without saying that the addition of even a single word can change the shape of a sentence and, by extension, the entire document. For this reason, translators who are responsible for legal documents must ensure to stay in close contact with their client at all times and to have the freedom to ask questions about the meaning of any phrase that seems ambiguous to the translator.