Legal translation has been and remains one of the most popular types of translation. Any international business activity is accompanied by contracts and other documents. Translators who do not specialize in legal translation are also faced with: for example, the company for which you are translating a website may request the translation of a public offer or other legal documents related to entering a foreign market. 

Novice legal translators often fall prey to the dangerous illusion that since legal language is replete with standard language and established phrases, then the best certified translators can get by with a dictionary of legal terms.

This is a dangerous misconception that threatens to distort the meaning and, as a result, the loss of confidence on the part of the client. At this point, it is worth remembering the main task of a legal translator – to translate in such a way that the translation is indistinguishable from the original.

In other words, the native speaker who reads the translated text must perceive it as if it was originally written in their native language. This will not be achieved if the translator does not understand the content of the original document. By choosing the path of unconscious translation, the translator runs the risk of getting an interlinear translation instead of a translation that is understandable to a lawyer.

In this article, we will talk about the features of the translation of legal texts, the knowledge of which will allow novice legal translators to avoid common mistakes in their work.

Possession of legal knowledge

This idea is partially disclosed in the introduction, in this paragraph we will develop it. It is impossible to create a translation that is indistinguishable from the original if you do not know the legal basis. Without knowledge of the theory of law, any document will be perceived as a set of muddy legal phrases, and a translation for a knowledgeable person will sound like nonsense.

Even if the translator understands the meaning of part of the phrases and guesses about the meaning of the other part, in the absence of knowledge, it is unlikely that it will be possible to combine everything into a single whole. If knowledge is not enough, in some cases the translator may not understand that he has some kind of stable expression in front of him and that he needs to look for a translation of not one word, but a whole phrase or even a phrase.

Here is an example from a real order, which was translated by a person who did not have knowledge in the field of law:

  • Оригинал: If any provision of this Agreement is null and void or will become null and void during its course then the validity and effectiveness of all other provisions shall not be impaired thereby, they shall be construed in accordance with the terms of this Agreement as if the invalid provision was not contained herein.
  • Translation: If any provision of this Agreement is invalid or becomes invalid in the course of its operation, then the validity and effectiveness of the remaining provisions shall not be affected as a result, they shall be construed in accordance with the terms of this Agreement, as if the invalid provision was not contained in this document.

The translator carried out an interlinear translation and got into trouble, distorting the meaning of the phrase. For validity and effectiveness , instead of “legality and effectiveness” in the context of an agreement, it would be more correct to say “legal force” or “validity”. These errors fundamentally change the meaning, because the contract may be legal, but at the same time invalid, the contract can also be effective if the parties comply with it.

signing an agreement

The translation in the example above makes the provision of the contract ineffective because it does not help the parties achieve their goal of securing the rest of the Agreement. It is not “legality” and “effectiveness” that are subject to interpretation, but the provisions of the Agreement, that is, the translator did not understand what the pronoun they refers to. 

The phrase “the legality and effectiveness of the other provisions should not suffer damage as a result” violates the norm of the Russian language. In this case, it is better to see how such moments are prescribed in the law.

For example, Article 180 of the Civil Code of the Russian Federation, which deals with the issue of invalidity of provisions, reads as follows: “the invalidity of a part of a transaction does not entail the invalidity of its other parts, if it could be assumed that the transaction would have been completed without including the invalid part of it.”

If a person had legal knowledge, then at the first reading of the sentence he would understand what it refers to and would not make such mistakes.

Using only exact wording, grace is unacceptable

For an ordinary person who is not connected with jurisprudence, legal language seems cumbersome, very verbose and therefore difficult to understand. Paragraphs of ten lines do not at all speak of the inability of lawyers to express themselves beautifully.

Legal language looks like this because it is designed to express a thought so capaciously that the very possibility of its court interpreting London disappears. Elegance of phrases has no place in legal translation. This complexity and problem of translating legal texts worries not only beginners, but also experienced translators.

writing text

The desire for elegance often manifests itself in the desire to use synonyms. This cannot be done: what is a synonym for the layman, for a lawyer is a loss of legal accuracy. For example, novice translators often use the words “contract” and “agreement” as synonyms. Moreover, a lawyer who sees both a “contract” and an “agreement” in a translated document may think that some agreement unknown to him may be attached to the original contract.

Conclusion: if one word is repeated ten times in a sentence, then it must be repeated ten times.

Often translators unconsciously seek to bring their own vision to the translation. For example, in the phrase “no sanctions may be applied to shareholders”, the word “none” is missing in the original.

If for the layman’s ear the phrase sounds normal, then for the lawyer’s ear it does not: if something does not apply to all shareholders, then there will be an explanation of which ones it applies to, which ones do not, etc. For a lawyer, the phrase “shareholders cannot be sanctioned” means that sanctions cannot be applied to all shareholders unless otherwise explained below.

From this point, the following follows logically.

Do not be afraid of clichés and stationery

In legal texts, the rule “better over” than “under” applies. Cliches, bureaucracy, an abundance of repetitions, complex constructions are the norm for legal language, so they should not be avoided, even if it seems that it comes out too dry and formal. You can not fall into the philistine tone!

Maintaining uniformity

In part, we touched on this point in the second paragraph. When translating legal texts, it is extremely important to maintain the uniformity of translated terms. It is unacceptable if in one place, for example, the executive body is called “general director”, in another “manager”, in a third-place simply “director”. You should choose one option and stick to it throughout the text.

girl with documents

Use of common language

When translating, one should be guided by the legal terminology adopted in Russia. In our and foreign legislations there are very similar, but different terms, peculiar false friends of a legal translator: for example, in Russian legislation there are no lease agreements, but there is a lease agreement, there are no marriage contracts, but there are marriage agreements.

The phrase “founded by the decision of the founder” in the context of founding a company would be incorrect. The law on limited liability companies states that the founding fathers of a company are called founders. Therefore, the correct translation is “Established according to the decision of the Founder”.

Translation of the entire document

A small but important nuance: not only the main text of a legal document is subject to translation, but also the header, footer, seals, stamps, and interlinear text.

Friendship with lawyers and colleagues

Sooner or later, any legal translator is faced with a phrase that he cannot translate. If the weekly study of dictionaries and codes did not help, you can and should ask for help from fellow lawyers and legal translators. 

Tip for beginner legal translators: The best way to quickly master the legal base and acquire legal translation skills is to work side by side with lawyers. Therefore, if you have the opportunity, for example, to do an internship at a law office, do not miss it! A competent lawyer will quickly teach a translator to think like a lawyer and bring the skill of translating legal documents to automatism. 

This is how it is, a legal translation: difficult, if you don’t understand what it is about, but interesting, if you understand the theoretical component. If you are interested in developing in legal translation, but you feel a lack of theoretical knowledge and feel insecure in translating terms, we recommend the course “ Fundamentals of Legal Translation ”. On the course you will find the theory and practice of legal translation from English into Russian.