January 10, 2021

The challenges of legal translation

As companies the world over look to move into an increasingly global workplace, the opportunities for expansion and growth are greater than ever before. With untapped markets suddenly opening up and new target audiences emerging, firms have more opportunities than ever to become a truly global company.
But expanding into new territories comes with its challenges. A global world, even online, doesn’t automatically make it an accessible one. Companies are having to translate critical content to unlock these new opportunities. And in the area of legal translation, this can be particularly tricky.
As the global marketplace has grown, so too have the legal issues that come from differences between territories. According to IBM, for example, the COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated the shift from physical to online commerce by around 5 years. This acceleration provides more opportunity for cross-border disputes to arise, and is an indication of the increasingly global nature of business and consumption. The meaning, tone, and style of laws differ greatly from nation to nation, adding another layer of complexity to cross-border legal issues. 
With this in mind, it’s vital that companies get it right when it comes to their legal translations. It’s about more than just making a document multilingual – it also has to have relevance legally in a number of different countries.

Good enough isn’t enough 
Legal translators must capture every single little nuance, tone and intended meaning in legal content which tends to be far more complex than any other type of writing. That’s why it’s essential they have a thorough knowledge of languages supported by a deep understanding of the legal systems they’re working with.

Working between worlds 
One of the biggest issues when translating a legal document is the very little crossover with cross-border legality. Laws, even the most fundamental ones, are vastly different from country to country, as is their wording, meaning and tone of voice. 
Because legal systems in any given country tend to be drawn from documents written many years ago, and because they form the basis of any nation, it’s hard for there to be any sort of international standard.
This means that the legal translator has a different job entirely from, for example, a financial translator. With the world of finance now so global and highly regulated, there tends to be best practice guides and codes of conduct used for documents being laid out. So any translator working on a document from one nation will have a fairly good idea of how it should come across in another.
The same cannot be said in law, where there tends to be no international standards for writing. Nations like the UK, France and the US generally use longer and wordier styles of writing, while others use shorter sentence structures that are clearer and more concise. Going from one language to another in these circumstances can therefore be particularly difficult for the translator.

The legal jargon
Sometimes, translation simply isn’t an option. In the world of law, there are more than a few ‘untranslatable’ terms. Terms specific to the law of one nation and where those legal documents are used. This can make it very hard for legal translators to get around. 
A similar problem can occur when a term is commonplace in one country’s legal system but has an entirely different meaning somewhere else. When American contracts use the term ‘consideration’, for example, this is clear across the board in the US. But it would need to be explained at length anywhere else in the world – again adding a layer of complexity to the translation. 

Meaning vs tone 
Once translated, a legal document must remain true to the original in terms of its absolute meaning. Any deviation from the original text can render a legal document useless, present loopholes that don’t exist and convey a different meaning entirely. Unlike any other document, legal translations must be consistent, fair, balanced and representative of the origin text.
While in other texts, translations can often literally convey the point in another language, in legal papers this is often impossible. Translations need to be legally correct rather than just literal, retaining everything the original author meant to say in both meaning and tone. Which means the translation requires a degree of relevant localisation for the target audience.
Translation is never a straightforward or easy task. It requires expertise and precision to deliver an accurate and useful document, regardless of the sector in question. But when we add the element of law into the equation, a far more skilled and experienced translation is required – and it becomes even more important for the translator to have the skills, patience and attention to detail to navigate the challenges they may face during the process.  
At THG Fluently, we've been delivering language services to legal businesses and departments for more than 17 years. From certified to sworn translation and interpreting, we've learned what it takes to help you communicate across boarders, no matter the language. So if yu'd like to learn more about how we can support your business, feel free to get in touch.

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