Legal texts are characterised by their precision. An error, omission, addition or a misinterpretation can have very serious consequences, even terrible. In the past, wars have broken out because of a misinterpretation of a legal text. The profession of a legal translator is therefore very difficult and demanding.

One of the most notable examples is the Treaty of Wuchale in 1889 between Italy and Ethiopia. The text, which was written in a Semitic language stated that the Ethiopian Emperor could be represented by Italy in its foreign affairs. The Italian translation changed the possibility to obligation, which implied that Italy had authority over Ethiopia. When the Italians decided to assert their rights, the Ethiopians rejected the treaty. This led to the the beginning between the two countries. This war went on to cause 25,000 deaths (and the appeal of the treaty after the defeat of the Italians).

This is an extreme example of the consequences that can result from a badly translated legal document. But even in an everyday legal translation, the consequences of a mistranslation can be very serious and very costly. Let’s see some of the problems experienced by the legal translator and how they make sure to avoid these critical errors.

Legal translators must translate legal terminology with precision even when it has various meanings

Le terme ‘polysémique’ désigne le fait qu’un mot, une expression peut avoir plusieurs sens. Usually, legal jargon is very specific for the purpose of avoiding situations like these. However, with legal translation from one language to another, there can be words that have multiple meanings. This is the case with the word “Acte”, which has multiple meaning in the French language, therefore precision in the translation process is paramount. The same as “Business Corporation” which has 5 equivalents according to where it is being translated for: France, Québec, Ottawa, New Brunswick or Ontario. Legal terms that have multiple meanings also exist in the English language. According to Nadelman “Even in the same language the meaning of a legal term may differ from system to system. Thus, “domicile” has one meaning in English law and quite different meanings in American jurisdictions” (1966, 195).

Legal translation In the same language a legal term can have an entirely different meaning to the same word used in another domain. The term “domicile” has a specific legal meaning in England, and in certain areas of the United States.

Legal systems vary from country to country

In order to effectively translate legal documents, the translator must possess knowledge of the legal systems in both the source text country and target text country. Legal systems vary from country to country and certain laws and concepts do not exist in other countries. The keyword here is context. The translator must translate into their native language, but must also know how to use the language in this specific context.

In order to be able to overcome these difficulties, the legal translator must have more than just linguistic competencies. They must also:

  • Possess concrete knowledge of the law and also, ideally, have experience in the field
  • Have a fluent command of the source language and be native in the target language
  • Have knowledge of the technical jargon

Legal translators must be able to translate the subtleties of other languages with precision

As seen in the introduction, nuances in different languages can sometimes lead to difficulties in the translation between them.

There are also other cases, such as dialects, familiar expressions, and syntax that requires special attention. For example, commas, accent marks, and colons can considerably modify the meaning of certain legal expressions. A legal translator must therefore know these implications during the translation between target and source documents. If this is done incorrectly, there can be various inaccuracies and inconsistencies between the texts. This could also create ambiguity in the interpretation and lead to a lack of understanding. Legal translators must therefore use all their linguistic knowledge and their experience to avoid these mistakes that can sometimes be quite costly.

A good example of legal jargon being mistranslated is the French term “demander”, which is often mistranslated as “to demand” in English. In French, this means “to make a claim”, while in English this means “to demand” It is very easy to imagine the consequences that can follow this confusion!

In this article, our aim was to highlight the importance of the role of the legal translator. Legal translators must be able to translate from one language to another, while also being legal experts. This is what allows legal translators to transform the source text message into the target language.

Here at ACSTraduction, our experienced legal translators are very capable of providing expert legal translations which allows us to cater to the huge demand in the specific field. This included the translation of intellectual property rights and business law. Contact us today to see how we can assist you.