LanguageLine Solutions: Legal Translation Services

Translation of legal documents is a difficult field, and should only be undertaken by a specialist in legal translation, who will usually have a working knowledge of not only the language of the source document and the language to be translated to, but also of the legal systems of both countries.

Before engaging a legal translator, you should check the legality of document translation in your country. In the UK there is no requirement for the translator to be appointed by the court, however they can usually certify the translation (this will usually be an accompanying letter on company paper confirming the details of the translator and stating that it is a true and accurate translation), or can provide a notarised translation, where after translation the translator has sworn in front of a solicitor that the translation is accurate. Other countries hold different requirements, and may require that legal document translation is carried out only by individuals who have passed a certain examination, are registered with the court or are appointed by the court.

The main difficulty of legal translation arises because the legal documents are very precise, and written in such a way as to fit with the legal structure of the country. When interpreting them in the context of another legal system there may not be an exact translation, thus the translator must understand the intent and impact of the phrase in the source language, and seek the most appropriate phrasing in the translated language, while still keeping the essential meaning intact. While some courts may request “verbatim” translation, in many cases this is impossible as a word for word translation will be nonsense or will lose an importance nuance. For example, the word “home” in English can translate to Japanese as honba, shuuyoujo, ho-mu, gensanchi, taku or soukutsu. Honba can be translated as habitat, Shuuyoujo as a camp, gensanchi  as place-of-origin, taku as a house, soukutsu as a normal place of residence and ho-mu as an imported English word, e.g. the home button in Microsoft Windows. A lot of nuance, which is not present in the English translation except in context, so in going from English to Japanese care must be taken to choose the right translation, and in going from Japanese to English care must be taken to preserve the nuanced meaning beyond the literal translation.

This issue of nuance is particularly problematic for legal translation, as “Law” translates into two different words for most European languages – legislation or statutory acts (often referred to as Lex from the latin) and ius, which is polysemous and either means right or law, but when referring to law means what is right or just. In French law (lex) is translated as loi but law(ius) is translated as droit.

Common documents requiring legal translation are contracts, wills, trusts, depositions, articles of incorporation, litigation documents, immigration documents and certificates. In the multinational society of today it is common for business to require contracts in multiple languages, or for wills of individuals to be applicable in multiple countries, and clear, concise and accurate document translation is essential.

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