What makes a good legal translator?
Providing an accurate legal translation is a meticulous task that requires specific skills. In essence, the translation has to make legal and linguistic sense. In an effort to achieve this, the translator must have the required knowledge and expertise, an aspect that is rather obvious, however, if we examine this more carefully, what does this actually entail? Is there anything in particular that might indicate that the translator you hired will produce a good legal translation? In this article, I would like to explore the skills that, in my view, are absolutely essential in producing a great quality legal translation.
An excellent command of the languages involved in the translation
It should not come as a surprise that a good legal translator must have an excellent command of the language that they translate from (called Source language) and into (called Target language). The translator should ideally be a native speaker or have a near-native command of the languages that they work with. This means that they must have advanced and in-depth linguistic knowledge of the source and target languages, namely speaking articulately and writing well, in addition to extensive knowledge of vocabulary, grammar, semantics, idiomatic language and understanding cultural nuances.
Law related translation qualifications
Translators who wish to start a career in legal translation would usually take a translation exam with a Law option as their specialisation and later obtain a formal qualification in legal translation. In addition to translation qualifications, many skilled legal translators have either received legal training or attended courses in legal translation. Some may have a degree in Law while others may also be legal practitioners. Consequently, translation studies paired with legal education play an important role in producing a great quality legal translation. This also ensures that the translator does not only comprehend legal language, but also understands and applies translation theory knowledge and technique, therefore enabling them to translate legal documents with great skill and attention to detail.
Understanding legal language and focusing on translating the meaning
A good legal translator knows how to approach translating legal documents associated with a high degree of complexity. Taking into account that some terminology, laws or legal concepts may be absent in the other language, these pose a great challenge to how they are rendered in the translation. It is important that the translator adopts the methodology of translating the meaning behind that specific terminology, as opposed to a literal/word-for-word translation. In my view, it is exactly this skill that is the most difficult to master in legal translation, namely the ability to accurately transfer the meaning of legal terminology from one language to another while avoiding excessive paraphrasing.
Familiarity with different legal systems
Given that there are various legal systems in the world, providing an accurate legal translation is a major linguistic challenge. What has a specific meaning in one legal system can have a different meaning or be absent in another legal system. Consequently, the translator can provide an accurate translation only if they have an understanding of the legal systems associated with the source and target languages. For instance, some legal systems have judges and justices in roles that are different or absent in other systems. This creates difficulty in terms of how they are translated across a different legal system and a lack of familiarity with these, further increases the risk of producing a translation that may not make much legal sense to the reader.
The importance of reading legal text and documents in both languages
Reading law reports, legislation and other legal resources in both languages should be the habit of every successful legal translator. For instance, a translator who often translates judgments or court orders may often read published court judgments and decisions given by the Courts within several jurisdictions. An example of a good resource for legal translators is the official website of the European Court of Human Rights that also includes publications in many languages.
Great research skills
Research skills come into play when the translator is not familiar with a law or with specific legal terminology. A good legal translator is skilled at identifying reliable resources and using their best judgement to select the most suitable resource that can be of great help when it comes to producing a good translation.
Marina Barbulat DPSI Dip Trans RPSI
Director at Duomo Translations
Marina is a certified interpreter and translator based in London, who works closely with legal professionals. She completed her Foreign Languages and Literature degree in English, Italian and Russian at the University of Verona in Italy. She then obtained the DPSI in English Law and the level 7 Diploma in Translation with Law and Technology from the Chartered Institute of Linguists in London. As a director at Duomo Translations, she manages a variety of translation projects and is committed to raising awareness about the essential role that human translators play in an increasingly AI-driven world.