5 Legal Translation Dos and Don’ts

Legal document translation services are similar in many ways to medical document translations. Both of these types of translation services have the potential to change the lives of people forever. Given the serious nature of legal translations, it is imperative that those who seek to undertake such a responsibility have the capacity to ensure that absolutely nothing is lost in translation.

Thus, we have selected our top 5 legal translations dos and don’ts for you to consider before beginning your work as a legal document translation service provider.

According to the Supreme Court of the United States, translation and interpretation are very different jobs. While court interpreters are required by law, there is no provision that any court of law is mandated to provide for legal document translation services. This decision was the result of a SCOTUS decision where it was noted as follows:

An interpreter is somebody who translates verbal communications from one language to another. Since the job of a translator is not verbal in nature, these costs are not recoverable through judicial action.

Thus, while you know not to confuse legal document translation services with certified court interpretation services, you should know exactly what is expected of you and make sure you will be paid for the work you complete.

  • Do Ensure All Legal Translation Tasks and Responsibilities are Clearly Defined

Even if you are presently working as a certified court interpreter, it does not automatically assure you will be paid for any legal document translation services that you may provide, even in the general discharge of your duties. Always make sure to completely define and state what your expected job will be and make sure that someone has already agreed to pay the bill upon the successful completion of the document translation services being rendered.

In some legal cases, you may be required to perform bilingual or even multilingual audio transcriptions and to create the original documents which will serve as the basis for your translation services. As a rule, most court reporters tasked with transcribing legal proceedings will only insert notations such as “Defendent: Speaking in Spanish” or some other obscure and legally meaningless entry.

Are you tasked with the translation of legal documents? Are there any supporting documents that will also have to be translated? As long as you have fully defined the scope and responsibility of your work as a legal translation service provider, you will have a much easier time getting paid.

  • Do Not Rely Solely on Machine Translations

There will be occasions where large volumes of legal documents need to be translated, and it can be tempting to rely on machine translations. While machine translations can be a great means for getting started, it should not be relied on for proper legal document translations.

The current quality of machine translations have improved drastically, but should never be considered complete. There is however, a process that is known as PEMT or post edited machine translation. In this process, machine translations are used to translate large bodies of documents.

These translations are then reviewed and edited by professional human translators who are deeply familiar with the language pairs in use. It is also equally important that the legal document translation service provider be familiar not only with the languages within the language pair for translation, but also the specific legal terminology accepted by the courts in both languages.

  • Do Ensure the Familiarity of 3

Native Language, Translated Language and Legal Language are 3 separate and unique concepts and should never be confused. What is the plural of “person”? You may see “unnamed” persons in a report but does that mean the same thing as unnamed people? Nope. In legal language, “people” are the body politic or the citizens. If you are a certified court interpreter for an illegal alien, they may (or may not) be a person, but they are not legally part of the people. Persons is the proper plural form of person.

Are corporations people? No. Corporations are persons. A person is a person not by virtue of being human, but because they have certain rights and duties ascribed to them as a person, such as the right to own property, the right to sue and the right to be sued. While humans may or may not be persons, all corporations are persons but are never part of the people.  An individual who is stateless may not be a legal person, despite being a lawful flesh and blood man or woman.

In order to avoid any confusion and potential legal challenges for the document translation services at any later date, for every legal document translation, most especially with the translation of legal contracts, a language clause should be included in the contract itself. If one is not present, consult with the official attorney of record to explore the possibility of the inclusion of such a clause.

Sample Language Clause:

  • The Interested Parties agree upon and acknowledge that the primary version of this Agreement is an English-language Document and English is the official language of this Agreement and in the event any dispute shall rise from this Agreement that the English Language Version will be used as the Original and Unaltered Document.

It is also necessary for the legal document translation service provider to have a complete understanding of both languages within the language pair for translation.

  • Do Not Dismiss Placeholder Language, Expressions or other Localized Figures of Speech

The Nuremberg Trials were history at large, and notably perhaps, the first introduction of “live interpreters” working together in legal proceedings. The Germans use the word “Ja”, a word literally translated as “yes” as a “placeholder”. This created some confusion as the Germans would often respond to a question with “ja”, not because they were admitting to anything, but merely as a placeholder to give themselves a moment to organize their thoughts and think before replying.

In the United States, similar words such as “um”, “like” and others are common, as is the use of “eh” as a placeholder in Canadian speech. As a legal translator, especially if there is transcription required as well, such placeholders may be common throughout the legal translation of a report or other statement or claim.

Likewise there are many expressions and forms of local vernacular that may change the entire context of a conversation with a literal translation. Someone may have “a new flame” indicating that they have a new girlfriend, but how is this translated say, in the case of someone on trial for arson. A question that is largely innocuous in nature can take on very sinister undertones when translated literally.

Add to this equation the number of polysemous words or words with many different meanings depending on the content in which they are used, plus the potential legal ramification of translation errors, and it may seem like an impossible task without having all of the proper tools. This is where the use of notes may come into the equation.

  • Do Include Translator Notes With all Legal Document Translations

Translator notes are notations that are included along with the legal document translations. Whenever it is possible, a literal translation should be provided, but there are instances such as those noted previously where some explanation may also be required. While there may be some debate about the use of Translator Notes, they can be a necessity in terms of legal document translation services.

Translator notes can increase word counts for unpaid words and create more work for the translator, but they should still be considered where necessary. In terms of legal document translation services for contracts, these notes may not be so important, though in terms of legal translation of claims, statements or other personal interactions, the translator notes may be as important as the original translation. The translator notes are how the translator can provide both a literal translation and provide the original meaning and context of the translation.

  • Do Not Insert Directly Yourself Into The Conversation as an Interested Party

And do not allow the lawyer or the client or anybody else to insert yourself into the conversation as a personal party. If an attorney directly asks you to ask a question, you can deny and then explain to them that such an action would be both unethical and perhaps have legal ramifications that you cannot foresee.

While this may seem to be a challenge more in line with a legal interpreter, it is surprisingly common in terms of legal translation services as well. As a legal translator, you may be asked to actively interpret statements, claims and other notices given directly.

It is surprisingly common even for Attorneys to directly address the interpreter and speak of the LEP (Low English Proficiency) individual as a third party. The same may also be true in reverse where the LEP individual may say something like “tell the attorney that” … no! Stop.

Part of your job is to ensure that if you are inserted into the conversation in any way, you extricate yourself immediately and make it known to all parties that you are there only to interpret, and not to personally participate.

  • Do Ensure a Literal Translation

As funny as it may sound, your job as a legal document translation service provider is not to think, but to translate what is written.

This can be exceptionally difficult on occasion, but is imperative. The legal language clause can help in terms of legal contract translations, but this will not solve all of the occasions when the temptation may arise to write what you think people meant to say, rather than translating what was said.

In cases where an expression or local vernacular has been used and there is some indication that the original meaning is different than that which was stated, the translator notes can be used to clarify any questions about context and linguistic idiosyncrasies.

  • Do Not be Afraid to Ask Questions of the Attorney Regarding Legal Document Translations

Good attorneys have been known to make or break legal cases with no more than a comma or semicolon. Attorneys are skilled and adept at making whatever adjustments may be required for virtually any case at hand. You should never be afraid to ask for their feedback in terms of translation. This is especially true for legal document translations for contracts and especially in terms of legal translations for active court proceedings.

  • Do Remember the Potential Ramifications of Legal Document Translation Services

Even a minor error in legal translations can result in the loss of freedom for someone, or otherwise prove detrimental to someone who is by all accounts innocent. These legal document translations can also result in cases being dismissed or forcing cases to be re-tried at a great cost to the local taxpayer.

It may be easy to laugh off translation errors in advertising campaigns and when “that guy” tries to order a fancy dinner in very broken French, but as a legal document translation service provider, your job is no laughing matter. Do you job, take it seriously and follow these 5 legal translations dos and don’ts and you should not have any problem as a legal translator.

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