Words Matter: Legal Language Translation Fails

Legal Language Translations

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What is legal language translation?

Legal language translation is the specific act of translating legal jargon and terminology from one language (the source language) into another (the target language). Translated legal documents like contracts, wills, employment agreements, settlements, business agreements, and immigration paperwork require precise human translation to ensure they are viable in the eyes of the law. 

Professionals who work in the industry, whether paralegals, lawyers, legal assistants, court clerks, and others may be responsible for sourcing adequate translations or interpretations, particularly in cases that involve international law. Unlike a general translation, those who perform legal language translations must understand both the source and target language as well as legalese (or legal terminology). This is important for conducting legal translations because laws vary widely between countries and there are not always direct translations for these legal terms. Because of this, it is essential for a human translator with legal experience, in both cultures, to read the document in its entirety to determine the overall intent and context to ensure precision and accuracy.

Accuracy is crucial in legal documents to avoid complications

While using the correct wordage is crucial throughout various sectors, few industries lean on specific word choices or industry jargon as heavily as the legal world. It is a single word that makes the difference between whether a convicted person will spend their life behind bars or as a free individual. A declaration of “guilty” or “not guilty” is perhaps the best indication of how important a single word can be when it comes to the law. 

Despite this, the importance of legal language is not always this enthralling. When drawing up business contracts, last wills, testaments, property deeds and titles, immigration paperwork, family court documents, or personal injury paperwork, it is equally important to use the right word every time. A simple mistake or omission such as entering the incorrect date or failing to clearly identify a beneficiary can cost you your reputation and a potential negligence case along with a plethora of unexpected financial expenses. 

On behalf of your clients, it can mean that they lose out on benefits they are entitled to, inheritance, or a number of other unfavorable circumstances. 

Are AI translation tools accurate for legal language translations?

In short, no. AI Translation tools are not a reliable source for legal language translations because they cannot understand the complex industry-specific jargon, the intent of the document, or the legal subtleties and variances between one region to the next.

While AI language translation technologies are consistently evolving, at this juncture, they are best reserved for personal use while traveling, or on the go. For instance, if you are traveling internationally for a contract signing. Perhaps you visit Japan but do not speak any Japanese. Using an AI translation tool would be suitable to understand what’s on the menu at the local restaurant where you are eating dinner. Likewise, it could be helpful to ask a person on the streets where a restroom is located. This is because the technologies are accessible on your mobile device and are typically free. The translations or interpretations they provide may not be completely accurate but they are “good enough” to get by temporarily for personal or entertainment use. 

On the other hand, if you draw up a legal contract while in Japan and need it to be translated from English to Japanese, an AI language translation tool is not a viable option. This is because the tool aims to translate documents word for word in plain language, but there are rarely direct translations from one language to the next. In turn, you may translate a legal document that has a completely different intent than the original or one that is all-around nonsensical. Because you do not personally speak the target language, it would be impossible to detect these errors on your own until it was received by the intended Japanese-speaking client. This would be viewed as highly unprofessional and even potentially offensive to the client and can have immense repercussions when it comes to your reputation and career in the international legal market. 

What are the most popular legal language translation fails?

There are many legal language translation fails, but some of the most popular include the case of Occidental Petroleum Corporation (OXY) vs. Ecuador, the Virginia Department of Health (in regards to COVID-19 vaccines), Willie Ramirez’ malpractice settlement, and Mead Johnson’s baby formula recall.

1. Occidental Petroleum Corporation (OXY) vs. Ecuador

In the case of Occidental Petroleum Corporation (OXY) vs. Ecuador, an agreement was drawn up that granted the company permission to explore various areas of the region in search of oil. Ecuador later alleged that OXY breached this agreement by failing to ask for permission as directed within the said agreement. Upon reviewing the agreement; however, the courts noted extremely poor Spanish translations throughout the paperwork. In turn, the courts actually awarded the company, OXY, a settlement of $1.76 billion—a staggering cost that could have been avoided by investing in a professional legal language translation service. 

2. Virginia Department of Health: The COVID Vaccine Translation Fail

During the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, people across the globe were terrified of receiving the vaccine. Whether they believed it would lead to devastating side effects, wasn’t tested thoroughly, or simply wouldn’t be effective, the U.S. government struggled to get people to agree to vaccinations. The Department of Heath’s Virginia branch, inadvertently informed Spanish-speaking residents that the vaccine was “not necessary” instead of “not mandatory” as English speakers were advised. 

The failed translation essentially told Spanish speakers that the vaccine was ineffective and not-warranted rather than informing them that they would not be forced to receive it. The translation fail was not at the hands of a human translator; however, as the Virginia Department of Health translation mentions in a disclaimer that they lean on the inherently inaccurate Google Translate for their document translations. 

3. Willie Ramirez Malpractice Settlement

Although the original translation fail in the Willie Ramirez case was more of a medical translation failure, the result was a serious legal malpractice settlement. At 18 years old, Ramirez was rushed to the hospital–in a comatose state- where his Spanish-speaking family used the word “intoxicado” to relay the circumstances that led to his unconscious state. In Spanish, “intoxicado” simply means that something has been ingested that causes one to become ill. It can refer to food poisoning, for instance, which is what the family was attempting to relay to medical professionals. Because of the closeness of “intoxicado” and “intoxicated”, the medical staff treated Ramirez for a drug overdose which led to him becoming quadriplegic.

His family later sued and was awarded a hefty settlement of a whopping $71 million.


While these three cases are among the most popular legal language translation fails, there are millions of others that haven’t made the headlines. Despite this, they have caused immense turmoil and have led to destroyed careers, confusion, and embarrassment for everyone involved.

Confidentiality Concerns and ABA’s Rules of Professional Conduct

Much like the legal industry requires specific terminology and certified human translators, all legal professionals throughout America are required to adhere to strict professional and ethical standards as mandated by the American Bar Association (ABA) Model Rules of Professional Conduct. Failure to follow these rules and guidelines can result in the termination of a lawyer’s license and ability to practice the law. 

When choosing a legal language translation service, legal professionals must be strategic and selective in their partnerships. Legal documents often contain highly confidential data, from financial information and personal identification to sensitive assault case information. Placing these documents in the wrong hands could be catastrophic for a legal professional as well as everyone involved in the case or legal documents. 

At ASTA-USA Translation Services, Inc. we take the utmost pride in being entrusted with sensitive legal documents for translation. This is why ASTA-USA follows ABA’s model rules in our day-to-day operations. In fact, we were one of the first language service providers in the world to institute a confidentiality audit program. With this program in place, we test, examine and evaluate our document relay systems and professional translators each month to ensure that there is never any complacency regarding the management of confidential information. 

How can I find a legal language translation expert?

ASTA-USA Translation Services, Inc. specializes in legal language translations through the use of our vast network of language services providers equipped with legal expertise and decades of experience in both arenas. Give us a call at 1.866.446.1860 or inquire now to get a free quote.