What Are The Difficulties Faced In Legal Translation?

    Danilo Coviello

    Legal translation is a specialist field within translation services due to the extra difficulties for people who undertake this kind of translation work.

    Why is legal translation so difficult? Let’s look at some of the things that make Legal translation a specialist subject.

    Firstly, what is legal translation? Legal translation is simply when people work translating legal documents. The documents themselves can be any type of legal text – court documents, witness statements, birth certificates, divorce decrees, and many more.

    There are also some less common uses for translation in legal systems, such as translation of audio witness reports or video recordings of meetings. These use a slightly different set of skills compared to translating written documents, but either type of translation can be a challenging task for translators.

    What challenges do translators face?

    To look at the challenges involved with translations of legal documents, first, we need to look at how legal translation works and the challenges faced in any type of translation work.

    Translators have to be highly skilled and well-educated individuals. Having a good enough knowledge of a different language for translation is not an easy thing. If someone wants to translate between just two languages, they should be fluent in both the source language and target language, though ideally, they should be a native speaker of the target language.

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    Of course, if they want to translate more than two languages, they will need to speak any additional languages as well, which is not easy.

    Knowing the languages well is vital to make sure that the finished translation is accurate. However, there is more to it than simply knowing the words.

    A good translator will know the local culture of the target area and will be able to make sure that the writing style, word selection, and linguistic structures are all right for the different countries where the document will be read.

    This need for the document to read properly in foreign languages does not always mean making an exact translation, but rather means adjusting the language to make sure the document’s meaning remains intact.

    Within the legal field, there are additional challenges that a translator can face.

    One of the most common challenges for people who offer legal translation services is the use of legal terminologies. A lot of legal terms, in English and other different languages, are in Latin. This terminology can confuse a translator who does not have knowledge of the legal system and legal terminology. Again, this kind of legal terminology should not always be translated exactly – it should instead be translated into someone that would be understood by practitioners of law in the target country.

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    Increased consequences for inaccuricies or missed deadlines

    Obviously, every translator tries to make sure that every document is translated accurately so that the document reads the same in both the source and target language. However, in the legal system, this is a much bigger issue. Any minor mistake made by a legal translator could have huge legal implications. Even one wrong word could mean that a written text changes meaning.

    For example, if a contract has the wrong wording, the two parties could each believe they are agreeing to something different. This is why it is very important for a legal translator to use and know precise terminology if they are going to be working on items for international law.

    Again, every translator will try to stick to deadlines whatever their specialty. However, in most fields of work, clients understand that emergencies do happen, and sometimes translations may be late if they work with a single freelance translator.

    In legal systems, everything is done to strict deadlines. If a legal document translation is late, it can cause huge problems with financial or legal issues. Working to deadlines is far more important when working in the legal system.

    What are translation problems?

    There are plenty of translation problems that can crop up. The majority of mistakes come from translations where the translated document is not true to the original text.

    Legal translations can go wrong in a variety of ways. If the translator does not have suitable language skills in the source and target languages, the finished work could be incorrect. If they are much stronger in one language than the other, there could be issues.

    Even for legal translators who have skills in the right languages, if they lack sufficient skill with specific legal languages, the final piece could be stilted and sound wrong to anyone reading it.

    If the rest of this blog did not make it clear enough, there are many challenges for people who work as legal translators. However, it is one thing to translate files between two languages within one country, and quite another to translate items that need to be sent between two legal systems.

    Formatting is a big problem that is immediately obvious. Different countries will have different types of forms and paperwork depending on their preference. Legal translators need to be able to understand both of these formats in order to make sure that the forms can be understood properly.

    Another issue arises with the conventions of the legal language for both source and target languages. For example, when translating legal documents from a different language into English, the legal translator needs to be careful to maintain a passive voice, even if this is not indicated in the original text. This is because any legal documents in English will have a passive voice, whereas an active voice would sound unprofessional and might be challenged by a lawyer or judge.

    How can we mitigate these difficulties?

    The main way to mitigate any difficulty for legal translators is to ensure that you get the right person for the job. If someone has experience of the systems of law in both countries, they will be at a marked advantage compared to people who do not have this knowledge.

    Secondly, someone will only get better at translating legal documents through experience – specifically experience within legal translations, working on legal documents, witness statements, certificates, and more. Again, this should include looking at items from the two legal systems they would translate between – this will help give them good exposure to the legal languages and legal terms used in both countries.


    Legal translations are complex and have a range of challenges that are not seen in many other linguistic fields. Different legal systems have different requirements for paperwork, and a legal translator needs to be comfortable with these.

    If you need a legal document translated, it is highly advisable to seek out an expert in legal translations who can help make sure the finished product is suitable. Ultimately, the legal system of any country is important and any mistakes can have huge repercussions – this alone would be hugely challenging for any translator, especially when added to the specialist language and text form. Luckily, experts train for years to be good enough for legal linguistics.