Legal Translation – Why Faster Isn’t Better

French couple I took high school French.  I wasn't that great at it but managed to get a few B's. I noticed in this faster-paced-get-it-done-now-instant-gratification-let's-all-be-friends-world, though, that paralegals in today's market have to more than "manage to get a few B's." Success in this field depends upon some great talents.  And, if you don't have that talent, you are forced to do the only thing a good paralegal can do – hire someone.

Marianne Reiner and Cindy Hazelton would be two people I would rely upon.  Starting up their language translation biz, these two entrepreneurial women translate legal documents and have sent me a checklist of what I need to look for when I'm demonstrating my excellent skills – in hiring someone, that is.  Here is what they have to say:

It's happened to all of us.  You're involved with an international case.  You've been focusing on the issues for months and the trial date is fast approaching.  You think everything is in order, when suddenly you realize that one of the documents you're going to enter into evidence isn't written in the language of the court where you're going to file.  You rush to the internet, type in Legal Translation, and find scores of translation agencies, all advertising that their turnaround time is just a day or so. One even boasts, "Translation at the Speed of the Internet"!

You choose an agency-probably the one at the top of the list- send off the document to be translated and breathe a sigh of relief.  Whew, dodged a bullet!  But did you?

Legal translation is not something that most people consciously think about.  Before you send your document out to a large agency that promises a speedy return of the translation, it's a good idea to know what really happens to your document once it leaves your computer.

Some misconceptions about translation:

First, let's consider some commonly held misconceptions about translation:

Ø  You just "run the document through your computer" and then print out the translation

Ø  There is special computer software that automatically translates from one language to another

Ø  Anyone who took a foreign language in high school or college can translate

Ø  All you need is a dictionary to translate

Ø  Any bilingual person can translate

Ø  There's a website that translates sentences as you type them

Translation is not accomplished by "running a document through a computer." That may work in science fiction novels, but there is currently no such software on the market.

There is software to aid translators, but it doesn't translate anything.  The program stores the translation as the translator types it.  If the same terminology appears later in the document, the word or words will appear as an option for the translator to use again. The context will allow the translator to choose whether or not the word or words will fit into a specific context.  This assures consistency within the document, but the actual translation must be done by a living, breathing human being. 

If you think anyone who took a foreign language in school can translate, take one of your legal documents in English and try to translate a sentence or two into the language you studied 20 years ago. Unless you've been speaking that language every day, you probably don't remember much beyond the days of the week and how to count to ten.  Would you trust yourself to translate that document for court?

Some believe that all it takes is a good dictionary to be a translator.  While it's true that you can look up one word after another and string them together to form a sentence, you'll end up with the kind of language we all laugh at when we read translated instruction manuals:

· With waste metal parts, keep away small children to prevent from some injuries by them.

· The bolt of screw is not of left or write.

· It is your duty as compulsion things.

Being bilingual is no guarantee of producing an accurate and professional translation.  Many Americans have grandparents who speak two languages, but most lawyers would probably not turn to them to translate an 80-page contract for litigation purposes. Translators need a solid comprehension of the subject matter.  For this reason, professional translators limit their work to one or two fields.  Some only translate medical documents.  Others specialize in engineering, legal, financial, IT or patent translation. 

In the same way an attorney who specializes in intellectual property law would not take a criminal case, professional translators only work in their strongest field. To do otherwise would result in an unreliable, probably inaccurate translation.

The worst misconception about translation is that there are websites that translate sentences as you type them in.  Here is an example of a machine translation. The first version was done by Google Translate, the second version was done by a professional legal translator:

Whereas, on the other hand, in rejecting the objection raised by the defendant, who claimed that there was a time October 30, 1998, three full years after October 30, 1995, when the last act which interrupts or trial- interrogation report, the Court of Appeal held that the complainant was under the introductory submission and supplementary charges, indicted by the October 19, 1998 notice sent by registered post to his two known addresses, such an act Training was interrupted regularly again the requirement of public action;

Whereas, on the other hand, to reject the objection raised by the defendant, who argued that the statute of limitations had lapsed on October 30, 1998, three full years after October 30, 1995, the date of the last action suspending the statute of limitations, which was the transcript of the interrogation of the defendant, the Court of Appeals asserted that, by virtue of the district attorney’s original and supplemental applications, the defendant was officially charged by notice dated October 19, 1998 served by registered mail to his two known addresses, such investigative action legally suspended again the statute of limitations of the prosecution;

What happens to a document when it is sent to a translation agency?

This brings us back to the issue of sending your document to a translation agency, where you assume you'll be getting a professional translation.  When the Project Manager (PM) receives your document, he or she immediately sends out a mass email to everyone on the agency's database who works in the languages required. If your document is in Japanese, the PM will send an email to everyone on the "Japanese to English" list. 

This list will include anyone who has ever applied to work for the agency as a freelance translator.  They may have years of translation experience or none.  They may have a degree in some field or no degree at all.  They may have taken some translation courses, or have an M.A. in Translation, or they may have no training at all. They may be American or Canadian or Australian or British – anyone who has applied to work as a Japanese to English freelance translator.

One English to French translator was hired by a law firm to edit a translation that was clearly unacceptable. She discovered that every sentence was filled with grammar and spelling mistakes, as well as outright mistranslations.  The firm discovered the original translator was in Congo, and it had to pay to have the document completely retranslated. 

Some select agencies try to send legal documents to translators whom they know have either a law degree or experience in legal translation.  Some agencies simply send the legal document out to anyone on their list, regardless of specialization.  So your legal document may be translated by someone with a high school degree or someone who normally translates medical texts.

Is your translation a "rush job"?

If you've told the Project Manager that you're in a real rush for the translation, he or she will tell all the translators on the list, "THIS IS A RUSH JOB. We need to get this back by 3:00 P.M. tomorrow. Let me know how many pages you can take!" Translators are often asked to work overnight to get their section back in the morning.

Your legal document will then be divided up among several or many different translators, depending on the number of pages and your deadline. They won't communicate with each other or share terminology lists.  You'll be getting back a hodgepodge translation.  Some sections may be perfectly translated and others may be barely understandable.  There will be no consistency between the different parts.  What one translator may call a contract, another may call an agreement.  If you're lucky, there won't be a serious translation error that gets discovered in court.

Is your translation confidential?

One final problem with agency translations is confidentiality.  When the PM emails your document to hundreds of potential translators, any one of them can open the attachment and read it.  Would your client want his or her document emailed around the world? Since many legal documents contain bank account numbers, social security numbers, and home addresses, this might result in disastrous consequences.

A translator received one such "blanket email" from a huge translation agency.  When she opened the attached document, she was shocked to see that it referred to an ongoing acquisition for which she had recently translated highly confidential documents.  She called the client and told her what she had just received.  The damage had been done.  Now it was a matter of damage control.

Another translator opened a "blanket email" attachment and found a court ruling that involved one of the richest men in the world.  She now knows his home address and phone number, social security number and all his private banking information. 

So by sending your legal document to a translation agency, you may get your translation back overnight, but it will have been read and translated by countless people, living all over the world. And any hope of consistency or confidentiality will have been lost.

Is there a better way to find a legal translator?

The best way to be assured of getting a well translated document is to avoid translation agencies and work directly with a professional translator.  You can ask international law colleagues for the names of professional translators they use.  Or you can go to the website of the American Translator's Association (, where you can enter the language combination you need, as well as the specialization.  Once the list appears, you can then select a translator whose qualifications match your needs. 

If you choose to hire a professional translator, you'll have to arrange for the translation several days before you need it.  A professional translator can translate between 1,500 and 2,000 words per day, depending on how much research is needed for terminology verification.  So you will have to be organized enough to send the source document in advance of your deadline.  But the result will be well worth it.

When your global business requires the translation of documents, accuracy and experience count. It is in your best interest to compile a list of professional translators to whom you can turn for this important service.

Marianne and Cindy can be reached at:

One Reply to “Legal Translation – Why Faster Isn’t Better”

  1. I have a prblem with several claims made in this piece. The idea that most agencies just send out the request to ALL their translators in a database is ludicrous. As a former project manager for a reputable agency, I cannot tell you to the lengths I went to make sure the document was taken care of by just the right person. We also never used translators that were not tested for quality first. To suggest that most agencies engage in such practices is irresponsible.

    Regarding rushed documents, it is true that in many instances they need to be split up between more than one translator, but that’s usually in cases where the attorney insist that a 10K word document needs to be turn around in 2 days, which is pretty much asking for trouble, and inthose instances, we were sure to make it clear to the attorneys that the translation would have to be split, that terminology would suffer, and that there likely would be no time to proofread it thoroughly. You wouldn’t believe the numbe of attorneys that actually signed off on that disclaimer. In very few occasions we had attorneys back down from their “I-need-it-yesterday” mentality. In one case, we were translating a huge project into Farsi, and we made those disclaimers when pressured to produce a translation by an absurd deadline, and the guy actually said “as long as there are squiggly lines there, I don’t care”. So, it is easy to blame the agency for a poor result, but attorneys need to own up to their own irresponsible behavior.

    On the other hand, now that I am a freelance translator myself, I love the suggestion that these people contact translators directly. I know I’m not alone in wanting direct clients!

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