5 legal translation mistakes to avoid at all costs

Published on September 14th, 2016

With more businesses going global than ever before, legal translation is something that expanding companies need to take seriously. It doesn’t matter which industry you’re in, moving into foreign markets comes with a whole new batch of red tape – and you don’t want the language barrier causing problems.


From expensive court cases, to invalidated documents and drawn out contract disputes, this is one area where you have zero room for error. Today, we’re looking at five legal translation mistakes you want to avoid at all costs.

#1: Only using machine translation

We’ve talked about the pros and cons of machine translation before. There’s a time and a place for letting technology take the front seat and this isn’t one of them. When it comes to legal documents, there isn’t much machine translation can do for you: the level of accuracy and understanding you need throughout your project calls for human linguistic experts in almost every scenario.

#2: Not getting the right linguistic and legal expertise

We recently posted an article on some of South Korea’s very public translation mistakes over the last five years, which only goes to show how high the standard of linguistic and legal expertise has to be in these cases. Law is among the most difficult of industries for translators to work in – so you really do need the highest level of language professionals on board.

Furthermore, you also need a translator with legal expertise and experience in projects like yours. Law is a very broad term so make sure you really hone in on the right legal field. Think along the lines of legal contract translators, corporate law translators, labour law translators, etc.

#3: Falling into literal translation traps

Just as you want specific legal knowledge from your translator(s), you also need to know they have the right linguistic expertise. Inexperienced translators will often fall into literal translation traps, despite their best efforts to avoid them.

Sometimes a sentence will have a direct translation in another language but the meaning will actually be different. This can happen for specific words and phrases where the literal translation means something else – otherwise known as a false cognate.

#4: Thinking of translation at the last stage

You can make your translation projects far more manageable and cost effective simply by planning ahead. This is especially true if you’re producing the original documents yourself before translation. In these situations, do what you can to “standardise” the language and avoid using terminology that could cause complications further down the line.

It’s a balancing act between keeping the intended meaning of your documents clear and making them easier to translate. Your best bet is to start working with translators as soon as possible; they will be able to help you produce documents that are primed for translation and build a glossary of legal terms for future projects.

#5: Not planning for future projects

Very few businesses only ever need legal translation once, so it pays to plan for future projects from day one so you can speed up the process and the reduce cost of later projects. Find an agency you can trust and stick with them – they’ll know what you need and get faster at delivering results as time goes by.

We’ve already mentioned glossaries – a collection of legal terms you build up for future projects – but you’ll also want to create a style guide with your agency. This will ensure every document reads as though it was produced by your company, and no one else.

There’s also translation memory, which stores your projects in a database so you never waste time/money on translating the same or similar chunks of text. These are all things any good translation agency should offer – so be sure to ask the question!

Legal translation is one of the most demanding niches in our industry. The stakes are high and the price of mistakes can be unthinkable. Your minimum requirement is a 100% error-free translation of every project, but you should demand more than the minimum. Be sure that your translators work to improve the workflow of future projects so you’re not wasting time and money on repeating the same mistakes.

Posted on: September 14th, 2016