Translating Legal Documents Can Be Challenging - Part 1

September 4th, 2016

The smallest of errors in any legal documentation could well lead to disastrous results for the people concerned.

Translating Legal Documents Can Be Challenging - Part 1 | One Hour Translation

Legal speak, or legalese, is a language generally understood by members of the legal fraternity, but things can get interesting when cross-cultural elements get in the way and cause problems for legal professionals. The smallest of errors in any legal documentation could well lead to disastrous results for the people concerned, so these types of legal translations must be handled with the utmost care. So, let’s have a look at just some of the instances where we see the need for legal documentation in multiple languages and note that this is not a comprehensive list –

  • Business contracts and other business documentation;
  • Various types of certificates;
  • Evidence documents and deposition records;
  • Litigation documents.

The Challenges Involved

There are four main challenges when translating legal documentation, and these are variances in legal systems, differences in terminologies, syntactic variations, and the overall tone. Let’s now take a closer look at each of these challenges –

Variances in Legal Systems

We know that legal systems vary a lot across the world, and because there’s no one-size-fits-all Best Practices document to cover all of these systems, the result is that there can be ambiguity in translation. Obviously, this must be avoided at all cost. In the accounting world, there're the Generally Accepted Accounting Practices which provides a kind of anchor for most records and financial transactions that occur in the civilized world; whereas the legal world has as many variations as it does similarities between the norms and laws of different nations.

So how should a translator respond when faced with two separate legal systems that contain terms with no exact equivalent? How does a translator eliminate ambiguity, and ensure there’s no avenue for later disputes?

Terminology Differences

Another problem translator’s experience with legal translations is terminology and its usage. Unless the translator is highly experienced in the nuances of legal-speak in each language, there’s going to be problems!

The 1929 translation of the Warsaw Convention from French into English is a classic case in point. This translation was commissioned by the English Parliament, to be incorporated (in part) into English law as the Carriage by Air Act 1932. The problem arose because the French word blessure (which translates in English to wound, injury, hurt) was not translated as injury, but rather as wounding. Wounding is generally associated with physical harm resulting from violence, typically with a weapon, and this is where we have the nuance of terminology. This translation meant that the original version (the French version) must be consulted each and every time a dispute arose over a specific type of injury sustained due to air travel.

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