The Ultimate Guide to Legal Translation – From One Language to Another: What It Is, When to Use it, and How it Can Affect Your Bottom Line

Each year, there are approximately 332,732 civil court filings within the U.S. court system. This figure excludes all other types of filings, such as appeals, criminal, bankruptcy, corporate and immigration cases, among others. While citizens of the U.S. are accustomed to the way that the U.S. courts handle these filings, many are blissfully unaware of how strict the courts are when it comes to filing deadlines and the words that are included within each legal translation or document that the court encounters. 

Legal Translation Ultimate Guide

For those in the legal industry, the complexities of legal translation are well understood. Conversely, those who find themselves with a sudden need to translate their corporate legal documents are often tempted by popular translation tools like Google Translate or others backed by AI technologies. While these translation tools can be helpful to translate foreign menu options for dinner or for entertainment purposes, they are not viable options for legal translation.

Learn more about the importance of high-quality legal translations:

What is Legal Translation?

Legal translation is the act of relaying critical information pertaining to the law from one language (source) to another (target). Legal document translation is unique because it leans heavily upon legalese (or legal terminology) and localization because laws vary widely from one land to the next.

In the United States, the vast majority of legal documents are initially composed in English. Legal documents in the United Kingdom are also drafted in the English language. Despite this, the legalese is immensely different—even when the document type is identical in purpose and intent. This applies on the most basic level and becomes more complex and intricate the deeper into law and language that one goes. 

Legal Translation UK and US English Localize

For instance, in the U.S. those who are licensed to practice law are referred to as “lawyers” or “attorneys” interchangeably, while in the U.K. they are known as “barristers” and “solicitors”. Both are able to practice law in the U.K.; however, solicitors typically only assist with out-of-court or minor matters while barristers answer to the Bar Standards Board and excel in providing expert opinions and litigating major matters within the courts.

Without translation that includes localization, one would wrongfully assume that barristers and solicitors were one and the same, as lawyers and attorneys. This could cause a major debacle if the wrong term were referenced in an important court document, despite the fact that the two documents were both drafted in English. This is why legal translation also requires legal experience and a diligent focus on localizing legal terminology. 

Merging legal language translation with localization, in the form of the culture and laws of the land, results in the most accurate and relevant legal document translations. Whether one wishes to translate business contracts, non-disclosure agreements, articles of organization, bylaws, employment agreements, or any legal business document in between; working with an expert is of utmost importance. 

Legal Translations & Corporate Use

Most who rely on legal document translations or interpretations are leaders of small to mid-sized businesses, enterprises, or non-profit organizations. While certified translators may be needed on occasion for personal use while traveling, to translate birth certificates, immigration paperwork, or other certified documents—those with an ongoing need require specialized corporate-level services. A language services provider is able to provide assistance with all language needs, whether over-the-phone interpretations or certified legal document translations. 

The Importance of Partnering with the Right Language Services Provider

Choosing the right company when outsourcing your corporate language translation needs is crucial for a number of reasons:

1. Legal Documents Contain Sensitive Data

Legal documents or business correspondence in general, often contain extremely sensitive data. Whether the information is related to business ownership, an upcoming expansion, employment of a c-suite executive, or details regarding the organization’s financial information, it must be handled with caution. With data breaches running rampant, providers must have extensive rules in place for employees along with a foolproof, secure platform for confidential document transmission. Without these precautions in place, sensitive corporate data can be accessed and shared by anyone. This is particularly important for those in the legal industry who must abide by the ABA Model Rules of Professional Conduct

2. Legal Industry Jargon is its Own Language

Legalese, or legal terminology, is a language that is only spoken by those who have devoted their careers to the industry. Without knowledge of this industry jargon and experience with the implications or applications of each term, it is difficult to effectively communicate the intent and purpose of a document or conversation in the initial source language; let alone a second language. Because of this, the importance of legal industry experience and word choice in legal document translations cannot be stressed enough. It can mean the difference between a flawless, airtight contract and one that leaves a business vulnerable to lawsuits and other undesirable results. 

3. Localization is Needed

When a business aims to translate marketing materials, product, or service information during an international expansion, many underestimate the importance of localizing the content. This is just as important as the words that are selected as not all cultures will comprehend the words in the same manner. 

Famously, when Perdue Chicken expanded into Mexico, their slogan was translated directly— without localization. The slogan, “it takes a tough man to make a tender chicken” in English became “it takes a hard man to make a chicken affectionate”. Clearly, the intent behind the phrase was not the same because the play on words in the original translation did not work in the Spanish language. If Perdue had opted instead for a translation service provider that included localization, the results would have been much different. 

This alone can limit the success of an expansion into a new foreign market; however, when it comes to legal documents localization is not optional. Forgoing localization of a legal document could mean that the document becomes entirely inadmissible in court or for its intended purpose. As part of legal localization, a certified legal translator must consider the words in both the source and target language, along with the legal terminology that is applicable in each language and region based upon the specific laws of the land.

While any language services provider can match basic words from one language to the next, confidentiality, experience and the ability to localize the contents of the document are not always a guarantee. At ASTA-USA Translation Services, Inc. we prioritize accuracy, high quality, and providing our clients with an overall superior translation experience from start to finish and this has allowed us to stand out from the crowd since our inception in 1987.

What’s the Difference Between Legal Interpretations and Legal Translations?

Legal translation vs legal interpretation

Simply put, legal interpretations involve spoken languages while legal translations involve written language. For instance, a phone call would be interpreted while a legal document would be translated. 

Those who have never utilized a language services provider may be unfamiliar with the terminology used for a particular service. While interpretations and translations are often used interchangeably, the two are actually different services. When a person receives a legal language interpretation, it typically involves spoken language. For example, if the two parties involved in a business call speak different languages, they would require language interpretation services. This would be a live conversation where the interpreter would listen to one party speak and then relay the message in the language that the second party speaks and vice versa. 

When it comes to legal translations, the focus is more so on written language and the nuances that go along with writing between languages. In most cases, a legal document will already be drafted in one language and a translator will need to read and understand the document before they begin re-writing it in another language.

In many cases, corporate legal language services combine a mix of the two so that they are able to effectively communicate by phone or in-person, through e-mail, and through official legal correspondence to solidify any agreements that were made through the use of other translations or interpretations.

Legal Document Types

Corporations of all sizes frequently encounter the need to draft or translate legal documents. While document types vary widely by industry, some of the legal document types that may need to be translated include:

  • Employment Contracts
  • Service Contracts
  • Non-Disclosure Agreements
  • Tax Documents
  • Letters of Intent
  • Affidavit
  • Bill of Sale
  • Shareholder’s Agreements
  • Last Will & Testament
  • Deeds
  • Property Mortgage Documents
  • Leases
  • Purchase Agreements
  • Birth Certificates
  • Immigration Paperwork
  • Independent Contractor Agreements
  • Promissory Notes
  • Security Agreements
  • Amendments of Agreements
  • Loan Agreements
  • Local or Federal Laws
  • International Laws
  • Patents
  • Decrees
  • Judgments
  • Articles of Organization
  • Bylaws
  • And Many Others

The Role Legal Translation Plays in Your Bottom Line

According to a study conducted by David Grossman, companies report an average annual loss of around $62.4 million due to poor communication. Whether this poor communication is between leadership and employees, employees amongst themselves, or when speaking directly to consumers, ineffective communication undoubtedly affects businesses’ bottom lines. When it comes down to legal document translations or legal interpretations specifically, the cost can be much higher. 

Many corporate documents and agreements are designed with the sole purpose of providing protection to the business and its employees. Without documents like non-disclosure agreements (NDAs) in place, employees would be free to discuss the most intimate details of a business. This means that they could share sensitive information with competitors or consumers directly, which would be disastrous. There would be no recourse for organizations because there was no protection in place. Because of the importance of this document, most turn to a lawyer to draft it to ensure that it is accurate and will stand up in court. The same approach is required when it comes to translating legal documents. In essence, a legal document translation requires re-drafting the original to be applicable in a different language. It isn’t as simple as consulting a bilingual law dictionary in most cases. 

Much like a company wouldn’t hire an inexperienced lawyer to draft a law document, the same approach should be taken when seeking a corporate language services provider. This ensures that legal documents are airtight and relevant in all applicable court systems to prevent costly settlements or lawsuits that can gravely impact a business’s bottom line. 


What is legal translation?

Legal translation is the act of relaying critical information pertaining to the law from one language (source) to another (target). Legal document translation is unique because it leans heavily upon legalese (or legal terminology) and laws vary widely from one land to the next.

Are translated legal documents still valid if there are errors?

This is up to the courts’ discretion in most cases, but there have been instances where legal translation fails have resulted in courts settling in favor of the other party. Likewise, it also depends on the nature of the error or omission. If it widely changes the context of the document or is nonsensical, it may be rendered invalid in court. 

Can I use Google Translate for legal document translations?

In short, no. The technologies behind translation tools are not viable for legal document translations because they cannot comprehend the intent, context, or laws of the land. This is critical when producing a document that is designed to hold up to the scrutiny of the court system. 

Do legal document translators need to have legal experience?

Absolutely! Legal professionals in all areas of the world speak a language of their own, known as legalese. The industry as a whole relies on this complex terminology as it plays a key role in how documents are written, and how cases are presented and can gravely affect the final verdicts made by judicial leaders. Without understanding legalese, it is difficult to produce accurate, high-quality legal documents. 

What’s the difference between legal interpretations and legal translations?

Simply put, legal interpretations involve spoken languages while legal translations involve written language. For instance, a phone call would be interpreted while a legal document would be translated. 

Have more questions about legal translation? Inquire now or give us a call at 1.866.446.1860 to speak with a certified legal translation expert about your needs.


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