Get Legal Translations Right on the First Try

Legal professionals are more likely than ever to encounter cases and transactions that involve languages other than English – even several languages in a single matter. Because each word is so critical when preparing for litigation, a legal firm’s document translations are expected by the court to be accurate with nothing added or omitted. For many firms, it’s a challenge just determining where to start, what is a top priority, and what may be insignificant to a case. Complete accuracy can be a difficult goal when faced with stacks of multiple language documents that need to be reviewed.

Firms who regularly, or even occasionally, participate in litigation dealing with international issues may find exponential value in partnering with a language translation service. A language service provider (LSP) assists with the skilled translation of a variety of documents. Examples include contracts, patent applications, intellectual property (IP) related materials, Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA) and U.K. Bribery act discovery documents, as well as evidentiary documents such as correspondence, e-mails, financial statements, medical records and expert reports. 

When I meet with prospects to discuss legal translations, they are frequently surprised by the complexity of “doing it right.” Many legal professionals are under the impression that simple machine translation, such as Google Translate, will be sufficient enough to meet their needs. However, the key with legal translation is to preserve the meaning and tone of the original document, yet ensure that it reads naturally in the target language. During these conversations, I share four key issues legal professionals need to consider when it comes to translating documents.

  1. Find a translator who speaks your language: Law. There are innumerable translators that exist out there, so it’s important that you use one that is not only a native speaker of the target language, but also a subject-area expert who knows legal-ese. Look for a provider whose language experts have a legal experience.
  2. Look for someone who has been educated – both formally and informally. You’ll likely want a translator who has a degree in translations and a relevant subject area. It’s also important to find a translator who has lived in his or her native country during the past few years, since language evolves, and understands that evolution is paramount. We require our linguists to spend a minimum amount of time in their native country every several years.
  3. Check references. Translating a document for court is a unique task and requires working legal knowledge. Make sure any translators you consider can document their success with previous clients. Your translation provider should be able to provide the necessary certifications to ensure that documents will be accepted by a court or government agency. 
  4. Consider the value – and potential limitations – of machine translation. Many clients ask about machine translations (MT) and wonder if they can simply use Google or an LSP for a fast translation. Some LSPs, including TransPerfect Legal Solutions, offer MT for specific situations in which it can be effective. These types of technologies may help firms cut document review costs by narrowing down which documents are relevant, and then leveraging skilled language translation only on those applicable documents. Our first question is always, “What is the end use for this translation?” The answer helps determine whether or not MT is appropriate.

All of these issues are critical when it comes to getting legal translations right on the first try. Doing so is essential, as was illustrated to us when we were approached by a legal client two years ago. This law firm needed to submit thousands of documents to the Department of Justice, and it insisted we use MT to get the job done fast. We looked at the project and ultimately declined it, since we saw a need for more nuanced translation than pure MT could reliably accomplish.  

A few weeks later, in a bit of a panic and with a pressing deadline, the firm returned to us after submitting its machine-translated documents to the DOJ. Those documents, which were never reviewed by a skilled translator, included a major error: the word for annual (años) was translated incorrectly, referring to a rather unpleasant anatomical term. The firm then realized it needed human translation. The cost was greater due to the expedited turnaround required, which could have been minimized by heeding our advice in the beginning.

Frequently, legal professionals want translations back “as fast as possible,” with “high quality” and at a “low price.”  Any client can have two of the above, but never all three. For example, we have translated more than 80 million words in as few as 10 weeks, but the quality was for a first-pass review, with editing and proofreading done later to improve the quality. My best advice is to communicate which issues are most important to you – speed, quality or cost – and then map out a course of action that reflects those priorities.

It’s actually simple to provide high-quality translations for a fair price and in a reasonable amount of time, especially when you find an LSP to guide your efforts.

About the author

Eric Elting is the director of global legal & patent business development for TransPerfect Legal Solutions. He regularly speaks on patent-filing issues at legal conferences around the world, such as the EPO Patent Information Conference, and gave a talk at the 43rd DIA Annual Meeting entitled "Strengthen and Secure your Global and Intellectual Assets." His articles have appeared in leading industry trade publications such as Executive Counsel and Patent World. Under his tutelage, TransPerfect Legal Solutions has provided services to all of the Am Law 200 and Global 100 law firms, as well as to virtually every Fortune 500 corporate legal department.