What’s Legal Translation?

March 5, 2024
8 minutes
What’s Legal Translation?
Table of Contents

Many people have heard of legal translation, but few know what it’s or entails. In this article, we’ll hope to clarify all of that for you, and show you how it differs from other kinds of written translation.

What is legal translation?

In layman’s terms, legal translators translate texts intended for use in a given country’s legal system – i.e. documents and files required for legal decisions and purposes.

‍Legal translation can also include transcribing and translating audio or video files, such as eye-witness reports, hearings, or cell phone footage.

Does legal translation deal with crime?

Does legal translation deal with crime?

While criminal cases comprise a large aspect of legal work, legal translation is needed in other areas too – civil disputes, proof-of-identity, contracts, and more.

What is sworn (certified) legal translation?

You may have heard of “sworn legal translation” if you’re at all interested in this subject. What is it, you ask? Sworn translation essentially guarantees your legal documents have been faithfully and accurately translated. Failure to do so (i.e. slightest change in wording) can cause major legal implications.

When you go and get translation certified, your translator may need prove their qualifications and/or fluency in the required language pair first. The requirements for submitting a certified translation vary from country to country. Thus, it’s important that the translator knows the rules so they can properly sign and certify that their work.

What is legal translation? What forms does it take?

What is legal translation? What forms does it take?

So what is legal translation exactly? As we’ve stated above, legal translators translate legal documents. These most commonly include (but aren’t limited to):

  • Birth certificates

  • Marriage and divorce certificates

  • Immigration/emigration papers

  • Agreements

  • Certified paperwork

  • Court case documents

  • Witness reports, testimonies, and like official legal literature

The aforementioned aside, legal translators may also work on anything else featuring legal content in.

What is legal document translation?

Legal document translation deals with legally binding documents, namely birth certificates and other identification documents.

What makes translating legal documents so unique?

Almost all documents legal translators deal with are legally bound and/or are legally required to be accurate. In other words, even the slightest error in the translation can render the entire text invalid.

‍Such documents often need to be certified to ensure precision and prevent fraud. Ill-intentioned people may forge birth/marriage certificates or other paperwork to try and enter other countries. Certified translation stops that.

What else makes legal translation stand out? Let’s take a look:

How does legal translation differ from other kinds of translation?

How does legal translation differ from other kinds of translation?

As mentioned above, translating legal documents requires sensitivity to accuracy. However, that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Many other, but lesser-known aspects distinguish legal translation from its cousins.

One key difference lies in the use of legal jargon, i.e. legalese. Most people are aware that legal documents are peppered with “strange” words. However, for those who work in the legal system, they’re normal. Those translating them have to be at least familiar with them. Ideally, they should know their legal meanings as well to ensure accuracy.

Tone and style constitute another difference. Legal translators need to be able to reduplicate that according to how the target/foreign legal system in question does so – (potentially) passive voice and all.

How different are legal and literary translation?

Literary translation emphases the flow and feel of a text. Generally speaking, they’re more often written in active voice; legal texts, meanwhile in passive. Both are complex, however legal and law-based academic texts (and thus translation) feature much more specialized terminology that, moreover, must be conveyed in a specific way.

How different are legal and technical translation?

How different are legal and technical translation?

Like legal translation, technical translation too requires translators to be extremely accurate and deal with highly specialized terminology, depending on what field their working in – engineering, chemistry, medicine, or otherwise. In short, the two may look alike, but expertise needed to do the job is quite different.

What skill sets should legal translators possess?

We’ve just looked at what makes legal translation unique. Now let’s explore what makes a good legal translator:

Is knowing law useful?

Yep! If you want to work as a legal translator, then it’ll serve you very, very well to be versed in law. When you are, you’re more likely to do an accurate job, because you also “talk the talk,” as they say, of the documentation in question. However, don’t think that understanding a given country’s jurisprudence is cake walk.

Good legal translators also know the ins and outs of the legal systems of the two languages (and regions) they’re working between. For instance, British Common Law and Islamic Law, are as different as night and day. Whatever your language pair, being aware of these peculiarities and the ways in which they’re communicated is a must.

What’s translation theory? Why should legal translators know it?

Translators should equally be versed in translation theory to do their jobs right. This means knowing how best to translate from their specific source language(s) into their target language – including how to tackle linguistic and cultural idiosyncrasies.

Which languages should legal translators know?

Legal translator must know their source (B/C) and target (A) languages extremely well – that is, from (a) language(s) they’ve learned or acquired to fluency into their mother tongue (generally speaking). They’ll also need to speak each one’s respective legalese.


To sum up, legal translation is the rendering of legal documents – complex terminology and all – from one language and legal system into another.

Professional legal translators are best cut out to do this kind of work, as they’re equipped with the know-how to curb legal or financial complications. They must be versed in law, for every aspect of their job and the kinds of documents they translate requires detail and accuracy.