What Is Legal Translation and Why are Professional Legal Translators Necessary

Legal matters can be disconcerting on the best of days, and just like there is every reason to hire a professional lawyer, hiring a professional legal translator has more than just passing merits as well. If there is a need for professional legal translation services, chances are pretty good that there is also a need for an attorney. 

Whether the need is for translation services or even a court interpreter, the services of a professional translation agency are likely much more suited to the needs of a legal defense. The use of legal translation and even when hiring a court interpreter will ensure that all of the parties are working for the client rather than working for the courts. Unlike the professional translation agencies, many court interpreters are not even certified, and legal documentation translation services are not available at all. 

The Language of Law and Legal Document Translation Services
What type of language is used in legal translation? If there is any misconception about just how difficult and exact legal translations must be, try out the next few paragraphs and consider the legal ramifications for even the simplest of errors in legal document translation services, whether they are provided by a professional translation agency or “that guy down the street” who happens to speak both languages. Here is just a small sampling of legal terminology and exactly why professional legal translation services are so important. 

What is a person? Is a corporation a person? These sound like fairly straightforward and easy questions to answer, but are they? What is the difference between a person and people? Is people really the plural form of person? In common usage of language perhaps, but in regards to legal documentation, such a simple error could result in a legal loss that may jeopardize the very life and well-being of the defendant on trial. 

A person is one to whom rights and duties are ascribed in legal terms. Thus, while many people may want to argue against corporate personhood, a corporation that was not by law a person, would be entirely unaccountable. A corporation is a person in legal terms because it is one to whom rights and duties have been ascribed. Among these rights are the right to own property and to sue and to be sued. 

What is worse? A corporate person that can be sued for wrongful injury or injustice, intentional or otherwise, or a mere legal fiction that, while recognized to be true, even though it is not, cannot be held accountable because it lacks rights or duties? A corporation, however, can never be part of the people. Huh? What? Why? 

Persons is the proper plural form of person, though not common in verbal communications. People in a legal sense, comprise a body of citizens, consisting only of those who enjoy the rights of a citizen. Thus, in many cases on television, it is easy to hear about “THE PEOPLE VS” whoever. The court, through its legal capacity, speaks for and on behalf of the people, but not for and/or on behalf of any person. 

Oddly enough, while all corporations are persons, not all flesh and blood men and women are persons, and fewer still are all people. Mislabeling a group of persons as people may very well result in a mistrial or worse, all because of what seems on the surface to be a relatively simple error in a legal document translation. What are the ramifications though? 

A mistrial is a best-case scenario, though still very expensive for the people, that is the citizens who likely pay the taxes that will fund the new trial in addition to the old trial. In a worst-case scenario, it is very likely that an innocent person would be jailed, perhaps even for life. Just as there is a serious need for professional legal representation, there is a need for professional legal translation services. If there are any issues with the translation accuracy, even in a relatively simple matter of contract law, the results can still be financially and even physically devastating for the individual who is forced to pay. 

Courts Appointed Interpreters and Legal Document Translation
“You have the right to remain silent. Anything you say can and will be used against you in a court of law. You have the right to an attorney. If you cannot afford an attorney, one will be appointed for you.” (but probably not at no cost). The quote is from the original Miranda Rights granted to anyone and everyone being placed under arrest … kind of. 

First, the police are not required by law to explain your rights to you, and it has even been upheld that they can use pretty much whatever tactics they choose to employ in order to get a person to incriminate themselves. It should be noted that the Miranda Rights warn that anything you say “CAN AND WILL” be used against you, not that they might. 

It also notes that if you cannot afford an attorney, one will be appointed for you, but that does not mean they will not cost you, perhaps just as much as a private attorney. Likewise, the Supreme Court has held that the courts must provide court interpreters, but it may charge for them as well, often as much (or even more) than professional translation companies would charge. The courts in the US at least, are not required to provide legal document translation services. 

Whether it is a court-appointed attorney or a court-appointed translator, there are going to be costs involved. However, both the public defender and the court-appointed interpreter to have something in common besides costing you with rates you cannot negotiate. Both are appointed by and paid by the court. They are sworn to the courts, not to the clients. 

Who are the court-appointed personnel more likely to be beholden to? The person on trial, suspected of criminal activity? Or the court that decides whether or not they get more work? Not only are legal translation services not provided for by the American courts, but even the interpreters may have some level of subconscious bias, even if they do not see it or understand it, much less acknowledge its presence. 

Hiring a professional legal document translation service will not only ensure an unbiased translation of all of the legal paperwork but also ensure that it is fair and not biased. Further consideration along these lines should also be taken into consideration given the potential for error with court-appointed interpreters that often, do not even require any certification before being hired by the courts. 

Contract Law and Legal Document Translation and the Language Clause
“This contract has been executed in both the English language and the Spanish language. In the event of any discrepancies between the English and Spanish versions of this Contract, or any dispute regarding the interpretation of any provision in the English or Spanish versions of this Contract, the English version of this Contract shall prevail and any question of interpretation shall be addressed solely in the English language.”

In International Contract Law under the Uniform Commercial Code (or Law of Contracts), any contract that will be written for and on behalf of parties of different nations, the Language Clause will be used to determine which version of the contract will be used for the purposes of adjudication. Thus, legal document translation services are not always necessary for international conglomerates. Generally, these types of contracts are handled between teams of lawyers working on behalf of the interested parties to the contract. 

What about the small business owner who may be hiring a large number of employees from among the ranks of immigrants? Should they be expected to explain everything only in their primary language? What happens if there is a dispute and none of the prevailing documents are in a language that the employee could reasonably be construed to be capable of understanding? 

While these may seem on the surface to be much smaller considerations, and perhaps not meriting hiring a professional legal document translation service, what would happen in the event that such a case was to come before a court of law? What are the ramifications for a small business owner who has “had a friend” translate these legal documents only to discover that the translation accuracy was not up to legal standards in terms of the requisite legal verbiage? 

This small business owner has likely invested a good portion of their life savings into their burgeoning LLC or Limited Liability Corporation and worked in absolute compliance with the express or implied “goodwill” or intention of honoring every aspect of the contract or even agreements. 

Yet despite all of this, one good lawyer can come in and, with documents that do not benefit from the services of a professional legal translator, destroy literally everything the small business owner has built up. This may result in a great personal loss for the business owner, save for the business advantages of having a Limited Liability Corporation perhaps. 

Even then, while the personal assets of the small business owner are protected through the legal formation of an LLC, their business that they have literally put so much of their life into is now gone completely. All of this could have easily been avoided had they made certain of the translation accuracy through the use of legal document translation services. 

Finding Work as a Professional Legal Document Translator
For someone interested in working as a professional legal document translator, a background and deep understanding of the law are certainly beneficial. However, it is important to remember that some fields of the legal translation will be more lucrative than others. 

Areas such as car sales and real estate especially, often seem appealing. However, it should be noted that most of these types of industries, even in regards to their legal contracts, will be handled in house by legal teams, and will be standard no matter what type of house or vehicle is being sold, and no matter under what conditions they are being sold. Thus, while the business volume may be viable, the actual legal translation services required will be minimal, and likely rewarded to a professional translation agency, ironically perhaps, for legal reasons. 

Since the US courts are not required by law to provide translation services, they are required to provide court interpreters. These jobs can be great at getting a foot in the door to find clients for legal document translation services and getting hired on, even if only as a freelance translator. Court interpreters will quickly learn a lot of legal jargon and also have a large field of potential customers to sell their services to as they have the time and inclination. 

This is definitely one of the better and more profitable ways of establishing a good reputation as a legal document translation specialist. Other options to consider are working for a professional translation agency or even starting work as a freelance legal translator, with a focus on website pages like the Terms of Service and other smaller, less potentially damaging legal documents for business interests online. 

For the dedicated person who is willing to put the necessary time into practice and hone their legal translation skills, it can be a very lucrative career choice, with additional options for work all along their chosen career path. 


Ruth Sto Domingo is an International Business Consultant for Sustainable Development. Her specialty is document creation and ensuring that all documents are correctly translated to all of the relevant languages for the international teams involved in Project Management.