Legal Translation for Documents

    Danilo Coviello

    It can be very confusing to navigate the wide range of translation services that are on offer, especially if you need something important translated for use within the legal system. Legal document translation can be vital for matters such as court proceedings, immigration, or insurance policies if you are not comfortable with the languages you need. Let’s look at what you can do if you need someone to translate legal documents, and look at some of the things that make legal translation services different from regular translation work.

    What are legal document translation services?

    Simply put, legal document translation services are the way to get any document translated for use within the legal system. As every legal document has to be accurate and correct, most people choose to find a professional translator when they are looking to have a legal document translated.

    The most common ways of getting legal documents translated are through a freelancer or translation agency, though some people also use machine translation. Let’s look at what is involved with legal translation before discussing the benefits of a translation service.

    What kind of translation is there for legal documents?

    Saying that legal translation is for legal documents is too broad to be of much help, but there is a wide range of different ways that legal translation services can help with different document types.

    Legal translation – documents for immigration

    One of the most common types of document that legal translation experts have to deal with is immigration paperwork. This type of translation needs to be very precise. Immigration documents have to be accurate with all the correct details inputted corrected into forms. Any inaccuracy could lead to delays in the paperwork being processed, or would, it could lead to rejection.

    Legal translation – certificates

    There are a lot of official certificates that need to be translated, such as birth certificates, marriage licenses, divorce certificates, and educational certificates. A lot of these translations will have to be done as a type of certified translation – this means that the translator has to provide translation certification to verify the final document.

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    In order to make a qualification certified, the legal translator has to be able to prove that they have a certain level of familiarity with both languages. The actual requirements for document certification will be different in different countries – for example, in America a translator may have to be a member of the American Translators Association, while in other countries linguists may need a certain level of education in their language pair to be able to make a notarized translation. It is always prudent to check your translator’s qualifications before getting a translation done.

    A certified legal translation may also need to be checked by a notary public, depending on the rules of your target country.

    Legal translation – witness statements

    Translation of witness statements often includes transcription – that is, turning an audio or video file into a written transcript. The content can then be translated and either left as a written transcript or re-recorded in the target language if someone needs to present the audio or video as part of a court case.

    Legal translation – contracts

    Contract law is very important, but contract transcription can be more completed – as well as having experience with the legal field, the translator may need experience and knowledge in the field relating to the contract – for example, engineering or medical, both of which are specialized subjects in their own right. Business contracts often need translation into multiple languages.

    What makes legal translation services different from other translation services?

    There are many reasons why legal document translation is harder than regular translation. The specialized content means that not all professional translators can handle legal document translations, and means that it can be hard to find someone who can provide certified translations.

    Legal language and terminologies

    Any legal translations will almost certainly involve having to translate legal terminology. This can be difficult for anyone who is not familiar with the complex language that lawyers use. A lot of the legal terminology is in Latin, meaning that unless someone has studied legal proceedings they may not understand large parts of the document.

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    The vital important of accuracy

    While all translation professionals aim for accurate translations, the legal field requires accuracy more than most. Even a small error in the text could have huge legal consequences for all parties involved. This can be especially important when using translated documents for immigration into a new country, marriage or divorce, or other fields where you need personal documents translated into a new language.

    Certificatied translations are important

    The importance of finding someone who can offer a certified legal translation cannot be overstated. A certified translation is vital to make sure that documents are accurate and true, which is often required by immigration, the legal system, or other sectors of government, to make sure that there is no chance of fraud.

    Negative consequences if there are errors

    As mentioned, there can be negative consequences if there are any errors. This puts additional pressure on the translation team to make sure that a legal document translation is fully accurate – and unlike with some fields of translation, they cannot use synonyms or phrases that are similar to the original on the document – it has to be exact.

    What skills do legal translators need?

    With all these difficulties in providing legal document translation services, it can seem like an impossible job for someone to offer translations for legal documents. However, there are a few things that can help someone offer great translations.

    Is a legal background important?

    A legal background is very important for legal document translations – whether this is from having worked in law firms or government offices, or from having studied law terminology. It can be very hard for someone without familiarity to try translating legal documents, so experience and knowledge are vital.

    Knowledge of different legal systems

    When working on translating a document for legal systems, law firms, or other legal officials, it is important for a translator to have familiarity with the legal systems involved. This means that they should at a minimum have knowledge of the legal system of one country that they process documents for, but ideally, they should have experience and knowledge of the legal process and legal formatting in both the target country and the original country. For example, a legal translation professional should know how to properly format a legal document for the country it will be used in, and they should also know what documents require certified translations.

    What other legal knowledge should a legal translator have?

    Of course, just knowledge of the legal field will not make for a good translation. On top of this, the actual linguistics side of legal translation has a huge amount of knowledge required too – a lot of these requirements will also be needed before someone can handle doing a certified legal translation.

    Knowledge of translation theory

    Translation theory is about how to do translations properly – the type of language, the way to keep meaning intact and correct. Anyone in a legal translation company should have an awareness of translation theory, which will help make sure that any translated document is correct.


    Once again, accuracy is vital. When working for any language or target audience, legal documents and certified translations need to be exact and precise. Legal document translations cannot be certified unless they are highly accurate – and as said previously, certified translations are vital for so many purposes in legal translation services.


    As well as having specialized terminology, legal documents also need to have a specific tone. S[ecifically, legal documents are often written in a passive voice for a lot of countries – though this may not always be the case. Great localization services for legal documents will make sure that the translated document is correct for the legal systems where their clients need to present the documents.

    Form layouts

    While not all legal translators will offer form layouts, you will often find that a larger legal translation company can help their clients by putting translated documents into the proper format. This is especially important for things like birth certificates, where the translated document has to be usable in the target country easily.

    Capability to cover difficult subjects

    While there is a less obvious way to measure this, another skill that someone should have before they offer legal translation services is the capability to deal with subjects that they may find difficult. A lot of legal translations are based around paperwork such as birth and marriage certificates, which is generally not emotionally challenging for most people. However, some legal translation services could include translating witness statements, divorce paperwork, or court hearings, which can stray into difficult subjects.

    Language familiarity

    Of course, one of the most vital bits of knowledge for someone who wants to offer a translation service is absolute confidence in their language pair – this means the source language of the document and the target language that it needs to be translated into. It is often recommended that people translate into their native language as this gives them the most familiarity with nuanced terms, as well as meaning they will likely have more knowledge of the legal system of the country. Of course, for people who offer translations for multiple different languages, this can be harder.

    Full language familiarity is important because this is usually a requirement to be able to offer certified translation services – and since so many legal document translations need to be certified, there is no room for being unfamiliar with a language.

    Ability to work fast

    Legal translators need to be able to work fast. A lot of translators can get called upon to translate legal documents with a quick turnaround time, and deadlines are very firm when working with legal documents, especially items for an immigration form or a court case.

    How much does legal translation cost?

    It can be hard to get a firm answer on how much someone will charge to translate legal documents because all translators will charge different amounts. You may find that a more experienced team of translators will charge more than someone with less experience, and of course, every document has different requirements. However, most translators will give a free quote on request to help clients see the costs upfront.

    Are agencies or freelancers better?

    When picking someone to handle a legal translation there are two main options. Both freelancers and agencies can offer legal translation services. Some people prefer using a freelance legal translation expert since you can build a rapport with the freelancer. However, agencies can often offer a legal translation service in a wider range of languages and will have experts in more specific fields – for example, business contract translation, migration translation, etc.

    Ultimately, the type of legal translation service that is best is down to your exact needs.

    What about using a machine for a legal translation?

    With the rise of technology, lots of people wonder if translation software can handle legal translations. Unfortunately, machine translations generally translate each individual word and can miss the meaning of a document.

    Can machine translations be certified?

    No, certified translations can only come from a professional translator who needs the requirements in their country to supply certified documents. The fact that machines cannot offer certified translations limits their usefulness for legal translations.

    Are legal documents translated properly by machines?

    The computer translation process involves translating each word separately. This means that they may try to translate legal terminology when it should be left in Latin. They could also form sentences incorrectly.

    Final thoughts

    Legal translation services are a broad field in themselves. If you need business contracts, immigration forms, or birth certificates translated you need to find a professional linguist who can offer an accurate legal translation. It is vital to know if your document needs certification and to find an appropriate legal translation service where you can request this.