Legal translation

Legal translation is a specialist form of translation. It is arguably the most difficult type of translation to perform well, due to differences not only in terminology but the completely different legal systems used in different countries.

For example, the United Kingdom has a common law legal system, as compared with the civil law system prevalent within most of Europe.

The provision of accurate legal translations, should ideally be carried out by legal translators who are either lawyers within one, or both legal jurisdictions or legal translators with professional qualifications.

Certified legal translations

A legal translation, which is not solely for informative purposes, but has or will have legal force (e.g. a contract or court document), is often certified.

The whole concept of a certified legal translation not only causes confusion, but indicates immediately some differences in legal system in different countries.

The confusion arrises because there is no concept of the traducción jurada or 'sworn translation' within the UK common law system. The concept is rooted within countries whose legal system is based on a civil law framework.

In Spain (and other european countries), a sworn translation is an official translation of a document certified by a sworn translator.

In Spain, for example, a 'sworn translator' can translate a document from English to Spanish, and sign and seal it. This asserts that the document is a true and accurate translation of the original.

Sworn translators are licensed and accredited by official bodies regulated by the government of the country to translate and legalize documents.

Conversely, in the UK, it is translations that are certified, as opposed to translators.

What are certified translations?

There is no such thing as a "sworn translator" in the UK, and there is no formal route through which a translator can be authorised to certify translations.

Instead, the translation itself may be certified, either by the translator themselves or by a solicitor (or a notary public in Scotland).

It is important to note that this 'certification' in no way guarantees the quality of the translation, but only that the document has been translated by a particular translator, and perhaps it lends gravitas to the document.

The solicitor or Notary Public does not and can not verify the quality of the translation but only the translator's identity.

A certified translation, should lend weight to a document. Of course, anyone can call themselves a translator and certify a document in this way, and it is usual for a translator to state his qualifications in a formal statement.

The statement includes wording to the effect that the translation is a true and accurate translation of the original accurate and completed to the best of the translator's knowledge and ability.

The translation industry is not subject to any regulation, so it is extremely important to check the qualifications of the translator.

The best legal translator?

The ideal legal translator is bilingual, has practised law in both the source and destination country of the translation, and has years of experience of translating legal documents, thorough knowledge of all relevant legal terminology, syntax and so on.

So, for example, the ideal Spanish legal translator, would have qualifications both in Spain and the UK, and would be a member of the Law Society or Bar.

The closer a legal translator is to this 'idealised' verstion of a legal translator' the better for all concerned. However, the number of translators available with such a perfect profile, are as the saying goes 'as rare as hens teeth'.

But within the UK there are translators with qualifications such as Translation (Business and Legal) MA/PGDip or a degree in law.

Outside the UK and in other European jurisdictions, there are translators who are Notaries and who have studied law.

So, realistically, search for a translator with legal qualifications, experience and who has been recommended to you.

The law is so complicated, that using a translator without a legal background, in at least one of the legal systems being translated, is asking for trouble.

Most legal translations are used to provide subsidiary information, for example, during contractual negotiations, to all involved parties.

These translations are non-authoritative, but still it is important that the essence or meaning of the translation is correct.

But once, the contract is being drafted, with of course potential for litigation in the future, the docuement has the potential to become authoritative and legally binding. The original document (from the source legal system), must but its very nature, retain its validity in the target legal system.

There are massive challenges when translating between two different legal systems. In part because of the differences between the legal systems. UK law is at its heart a common law system, as opposed to the Civil law jurisdictions found in France, Spain, Italy and so on.

But the challenges and complexities run deeper than this. For the original document to retain its validity under the legal system of the target country, it must remain as close as possible to the original, and the terminology will often have to change.

There are additional complications not only conceptually but also using different legal terminology, document structure and syntax, while retaining the exact meaning of the original document. Frequently there is no direct translation between legal terms. This is illustrated below with some examples of Spanish legal translation.

Spanish legal translation

'Juicio oral' while not a contractual term, is a fantastic example of possible difficulties, and illustrates why ideally legal translators should be lawyers or have a legal background.

The difficulty for the Spanish to English legal translator is that 'Juicio oral' which can be described roughly as the part of criminal procedure that follows the 'sumario', has no equivalent in UK law. The criminal procedures that are followed in the UK, are completely different to those in Spain.

The same is true with 'sumario' which is the investigation phase used during Spanish criminal proceedings. There is no direct equivalent in UK law. The two systems are completely different throughout the whole process.

This means that the translator must use his knowledge of both legal systems, to 'invent' a term which is as close as possible while keeping the meaning as similar as possible.