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Legal Translation

December 7, 2023
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What is Legal Translation?

Legal translation is a specialized sub-section of translation that is the act of converting legal documents from one language to another. Many legal documents can be used internationally, so they often need to be translated into or out of different foreign languages.

Legal translation can be performed for a variety of purposes. Some examples can include:

  • Contracts and agreements.
  • Legal website content.
  • Immigration paperwork.
  • Family law or personal documentation.
  • Intellectual property and patents.
  • Cross-border disputes.

Accuracy and precision are extremely important when translating legal documents since they are typically high-value or bear significant consequences. Making sure the text is translated accurately is of upmost importance.

Legal documents may include complex legal concepts or terminology, so making sure a subject matter expert that is fluent in the target language performs the translation is extremely important. A subject matter expert will be able to interpret the legal language, which can be technical, and make sure the legal concepts are accurately reflected in the resulting translation.

Types of Legal Translation

Given there are many legal-related documents in the world, legal translation encompasses many types of legal documents someone may need translated. Some of these use cases may include:

  • Contracts and agreements. When doing business globally, businesses may need to translate their contracts and agreements to be used consumers, vendors, employees, or investors that speak and read different languages.
  • Patent and intellectual property documents. Companies may have a strategy to protect their intellectual property on a global basis, and be required to translate IP documentation into different languages so they can be filed with the appropriate IP regulators.
  • Cross-border disputes and discovery-related documents. Parties may get into cross-border disputes, which may involve documents in different languages that need to be reviewed by lawyers or used as evidence in the proceeding. This will require translation and often certification, if used as evidence.
  • Immigration and visa documents. When applying for citizenship or a visa, documents may need to be translated into different languages for the appropriate regulators or government agencies.
  • Court documents. If documents exist in a language different than the language of the court, they may need to be translated a certified to be permissible as evidence or exhibits.
  • Family related legal documents. Individuals or families may need to translate their passports, identification, birth certificates, and other family documents for a variety of proceedings.
  • Financial documents. Financial documents may need to be translated to be submitted to different government agencies for a variety of legal proceedings.
  • Legal disclaimers, policies, and website legal documents. Companies may need to translate their disclaimers, policies, and other legal documents on their website if they have an international customer or user base.

Top Considerations for Legal Translation

Legal translation is a highly specialized field with complex legal terminology and concepts. Because of this, there are many considerations when performing a legal translation project, you should consider:

  • Importance of accuracy. Given legal documents are often important and carry consequences, making sure translations are accurate and precise is of the upmost importance.
  • Legal terminology and nuance. Legal documents often have technical legal language called ‘legalese’. Making sure this language is accurately translated and captures the legal concept and meaning is critical in a successful legal translation project.
  • Confidentiality. Documents in the legal industry are often confidential and can contain sensitive information (personal information, company secrets, etc.). It is important to use something like a nondisclosure agreement when working with a third party to translate documents.
  • Different legal systems. Different countries have different legal systems. For example, the US is a Common Law country and Germany is a Civil Law country. This needs to be taken into consideration when translating documents to be used in different markets.
  • Consistency in language. Given every word matters in a legal document, making sure the translation is consistent throughout the document(s) is critical so there are no questions or inconsistencies of meaning.
  • Certification. Some legal translation projects require certification. This may be a legal requirement or a way to make the translations more defensible if they are used in court. Certifications can be produced by third party providers to attest to the accuracy of the translation.
  • Experience and specialization. Using translators with deep experience and specialization in legal content is critical to make sure the quality of work is high. Also take into consideration industry knowledge when selecting a translator.
  • Quality assurance and control. The legal translation process should have quality assurance and control steps, which may involve the use of multiple translators to mitigate against errors.
  • Deadlines. Legal translation projects often have deadlines and can sometimes require rush services. Keep turnaround times in mind when thinking about a legal translation project.

Legal Translation Process

The legal translation process will vary depending on the project requirements and the service provider you are working with. Not all legal translation projects require the same steps or services, but they all do require:

  • Subject Matter Experts. All legal translation projects need subject matter experts since accuracy is key. ‘Generalist’ translators will not have a deep knowledge of legal terminology or concepts.
  • Understanding of Translation Use. Understanding what the translation will be used for is key in a successful legal translation project. For example, will the translation be used in country for customers to read and sign? Will the translation be used only for informational purposes? Will the translation be produced as part of a lawsuit? These questions are key to make sure the right process is applied.
  • Native Speaker in Target Language. Working with a native speaker in the target language, or the language the document is being translated into, is key. Fluency is good, but it is imperative a native speaker works into their native language.
  • Formatting Considerations. There are many ways to format legal translations. For example, will it be helpful is a translated contract has two columns (i.e., source language on left and target language on right)? Do signatures and/or government stamps need to be copy and pasted? Confirming formatting instruction is important to make sure you get the work product you need.

Depending on the requirements of the project, the legal translation process is typically a multi-step process between multiple legal linguists to make sure the quality of the work is very high. Below are some examples of steps that can be used with accompanying project types.

  • Translation-Only. The translation-only process is when you use one translator to produce the translation. This is typically good for situations where the end use of the translation is simply for informational purposes. An example may be reviewing a document related to a dispute, where the lawyers simply want to know what it says and do not plan to produce it in a litigation or proceeding.
  • Translation, Proofreading. This is a two-step process that uses two separate translators to translate and proofread the translation. This is typically good for translations into English when deadlines aren’t an issue. This will produce a higher quality output than translation-only, as well as more consistency across the translations.
  • Translation, Editing, Proofreading. This is a three-step process that uses three separate translators to produce a translation. This will yield a higher quality and more consistent work product, and is typically good for companies that are translating English documents into a foreign language for commercial use.
  • Translation, Editing, Proofreading, Certification. This process is the same as the above, but also requires a certification. Certifications can sometimes be provided with legal translations so documents can be used officially or be submitted in a court of law.

Quality assurance is key in the legal translation process, which is why most projects go through multiple steps by subject matter experts.

Legal Translation and Technology

Given the rapid change in technology, machine translation (MT) and artificial intelligence (AI) have applications within the field of legal translations.

  • Machine Translation (MT). Machine translation may be used by legal teams if they are looking for a quick and cheap translation solution. This is particularly useful as it relates to cross-border disputes and discovery. A legal team may have hundreds or thousands of documents they need to review, and may choose to use machine translation to produce versions of them they can read and make decisions on.
  • Artificial Intelligence (AI). Some legal teams may start using generative AI to produce contracts and agreements, or even review and redline them. AI is a technology that can be used to make teams more productive, but likely need to be accompanied by a human to make sure the work product is quality and useful.

Benefits of Outsourcing Legal Translation

Outsourcing legal translation to a lawyer or translation service provider comes with many benefits, especially for high-value work or situations where you may need help with multiple languages. Below are some reasons to consider:

  • Subject Matter Expertise. Finding a subject matter expert in the field can be a huge benefit in producing high quality legal translations. While some companies or individuals may be able to translate documents, they may not have the legal knowledge to accurately translate legal documents.
  • Liability. Legal documents are often high-value and could have big consequences, so outsourcing their translation help you shift liability to a third party in case something goes wrong.
  • Turnaround Times. Often legal translation projects are operating on a tight timeframe. Outsourcing to a third party can help you scale your efforts to produce translations quickly and hit key deadlines.
  • Time-Saving and Efficiency. Lawyers, law firms, and legal translation providers handle this work for a living and likely have better processes and technology in place to produce translations. Outsourcing your legal translation needs can help save time and make your efforts more efficient.

Evaluating Legal Translation Service Providers

When evaluating different legal translation service providers, you will need to do your due diligence to make sure you work with a reputable partner. Many providers say they can do legal translations, but may not have the right linguistic resources or subject matter experts for your project.

Below is a list of different options to handle your legal translation needs:

  • Lawyers or Law Firms. Many lawyers or law firms, especially global ones, handle translations for their clients. This is likely the highest quality work you can find, but also may be more expensive.
  • Online Marketplaces. There are many online marketplaces where you can find international lawyers that are bilingual. You can hire them directly for your project and get competitive bids, so that you get a better deal while still hiring a lawyer.
  • Legal Translation Boutiques. There are legal translation companies that only focus on this type of work. They have a large network of legal translators they work with, depending on the project, and farm the work out to them.
  • General Translation Firms. Most generalist translation companies handle legal translation work and may also have legal translators on their roster. Their experience may not be as deep as a legal translation boutique, as they may work with more generalist translators.


In conclusion, accuracy and precision are key in performing legal translations. Legal documents can be complex and full of complicated legal terminology that needs to be translated accurately.

Finding the right subject matter expert with the experience and qualifications for your work is key. Good communication and instructions are also important to make sure you have a successful outcome. If you’re looking for a bilingual lawyer for your project, feel free to post a job in our marketplace to leverage our network for your legal translation needs.

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