A Complete Guide for Legal Document Translation

April 18, 2021
12 minute read
Product Marketing

When you do business with foreign companies or customers, at some stage, you'll come across legal document translation. This is becoming increasingly important, especially considering that, nowadays, companies do business globally. As such, global contracts are becoming more prevalent.

This is, however, not the only instance where legal document translation is used. It's also common in cases where immigration documents need to be translated or a patent needs to be filed by an international company.

But where do you start? In this guide, we'll delve deeper into legal document translation and show you everything you need to know.

What is Legal Document Translation?

As is the case with other types of translation, legal document translation is the process or field of translation that converts legal documents from one source language to another. It's vital in legal document translation that the translator should also keep the document's original meaning intact.

Typically, legal document translation includes the translation of legal documents like contracts, proposals, court transcripts, regulations, wills and testaments, birth certificates, immigration documents, and many more.

Unlike other types of translation, though, legal document translation does differ in some respects. For one, legal translators must have a broad knowledge of the concepts and terminology related to the law to translate the document but keep the meaning the legal document is trying to perform.

Who does Legal Document Translation?

Typically, legal translation is done by qualified legal translators. These translators should have a legal academic background to translate the document's wording and carry over the intended legal meaning.

This is important because the meaning of the translated document must match the meaning of the source document exactly. It is more important that the legal document performs its job as a document, as opposed to literally matching the text word-for-word. So, even minor errors during the translation process could have severe consequences.

For this reason, these translators must have an in-depth knowledge of the legal system of the target country and the legal system of the source country. These translators also need to be certified or sworn to provide these services, for certain types of projects.

Examples of Legal Document Translation

With that in mind, let's look at some examples of legal document translation.

Translating and Localizing Contracts

One of the main areas legal documents need translating and localizing is legal contracts. This is simply because contracts play a significant role in everyday life, and are foundational documents in any business relationship. Specific types of contracts that regularly get translated include Master Service Agreement, Terms of Service Agreements, and Privacy Policy Agreements.

For instance, you will need to consider contract translation if you enter into a contract with an international company that doesn't use English as their primary business language. It will then be necessary that the agreement be translated so that both parties can understand the document.

With contract translation, both parties know what their rights and obligations are in terms of the contract. Contract translation therefore reduces or eliminates the possibility of a lawsuit based on a misunderstanding of the contract. For this reason, it is critical that the translations reflect the intended ‘terms’ the parties have agreed upon in a clear, objective and succinct way.

Discovery for Litigation

Now, let's use the same example of a contract with an international company. If there's a dispute between the parties and there is a lawsuit, discovery may be necessary.

Discovery is the formal pre-trial process in which each party may discover legal evidence about the other party's case. In practice, this means that the parties will need to exchange documents and other evidence for limiting the disputes and avoiding surprise when the matter goes on trial.

Now, because one of the litigants is an international company, some of the documents may not be in English or vice versa. In this situation, these documents will need to be translated to whatever language the court or administrative body handling the lawsuit speaks. In most circumstances in the US, this means the documents will need to be translated into English. When both parties understand the documents, they will be able to limit the disputes and even settle the matter before going to trial.

Translating and Filing Patents

For companies or individuals to protect their intellectual property, it is often necessary to file a patent application. When a company or individual then obtains a patent, their invention or idea is protected against potential copycats.

Further, if an international company wants to protect their Intellectual Property globally and file a patent in other countries or jurisdictions around the world, it will be necessary to translate these documents for filings in places like the EPO or other country-specific patent offices. In this case, translators need to understand the deep technical terminology typically included in patents, and where things can go wrong with translation as it relates to patent enforceability.

Typically, in a patent, the claims are the most important section for translation. Read more about the claims section of a patent application here.

Immigration Documents

If you relocate to another country, you'll need to submit a lot of paperwork. These documents can include anything from birth certificates, marriage certificates, driver's licenses, and other immigration documents.

To apply for residency, these documents will then need to be translated into the official language of the country you're relocating to.

Government Enforcement Actions

It's often necessary that government takes action against individuals or companies across the world. US companies operating abroad may receive communications from local Governments they will need to read and understand, which requires translation. They may also need to produce documents to Governments in response to an inquiry.

In such a case, all the documents used in the enforcement action will need to be translated.

Deposition or Trial Exhibits

At any stage, when you use foreign language documents during a trial or deposition as evidence, it will be necessary to translate these documents.

For instance, if we look at the trial example we used above, all the evidence and documents will need to be translated. This is simply because legal proceedings in the United States are conducted in English to ensure that English-speaking judges and jurors comprehend the evidence.

Likewise, suppose the trial is in another country with another primary language. In that case, the documents will need to be translated into that language. In many circumstances, you will want to make sure the documents are accompanied with a certification, which makes the translation more defensible in court.

Challenges of Legal Document Translation

As stated before, legal translation requires more than just translating the text of a document to another language. In fact, it presents various challenges that translators need to contend with. Below are some of the main challenges a legal translator will need to address:

Capturing Difficult Legal Concepts

Let's face it, some legal concepts are hard to understand even in your native language. So, the translator will need to interpret and understand the meaning of these legal concepts to effectively translate them into another language. These concepts can also be ‘lost in translation’, so it is important to have a translator that deeply understands what the language is trying to perform to make sure the translation is done properly.

Accuracy is Critical

The translation must be completely accurate. This often starts with an accurate and well-structured source document. And it's simple, translating from any document that contains any errors will compound those errors.

If the source document is accurate, the translator needs to interpret the text accurately and make relevant changes to documents to carry over the precise meaning of the document.

Legal translation errors can also stem from a translator doing poor work or not having the right background to handle the type of text. In many cases, a translator will opt to translate text ‘literally’, which can be disastrous for legal documents. It is more important that the legal document performs the task it sets out to perform, as opposed to being translated word-for-word.

Different Legal Systems

There are two main legal systems that govern most countries in the world – Common Law and Civil Law. There are very large discrepancies with how these systems are structured, which means legal documents also vary a lot. Here is an article on the main differences between common law and civil law.

For this reason, a legal translator should know which legal system governs the legal document they are translating, and have familiarity with the basic principles and concepts. When they do, they'll be able to translate the language of the documents while keeping the legal meaning intact.

Local Legal Terminology

Expert legal translators should know terms with no equivalent or multiple equivalents in the target language. They should also be trained to know the correct usage of specific legal terms and terminology. In this way, they eliminate the situation with the wording is open to interpretation.

In legal contracts, the Defined Terms section is very important. To lose consistency with previously translated Defined Terms can cause real legal issues with the translation of a legal document.

Literal Translation Fails

Legalese is often thought of as a language within a language. It uses terms that many people barely understand and often misuse. Add to this the fact that terminology used in legal documents is very rigid, and it's easy to see why legal translation is not very flexible when it comes to language use.

As a result, a literal translation of a legal document is simply not possible. Translators must interpret the source document and understand the legal meaning behind it to effectively translate a legal document. Because of the lack of flexibility, they also have a very narrow framework to do this.

Certified or Sworn Translations

One of the first questions you'll be asked when you need a translation is whether you need the document certified or sworn. This can be confusing at times, and you will not be sure which one you need.

A certified translation can only be performed by translators who are certified to perform them. These translations also have to include a statement from the translator, certifying that a certified translator has completely and accurately translated the content.

The translator then also has to sign and add their contact information to this statement. Typically documents like immigration documents, court transcripts, evidentiary documents, and passports need a certified translation.

In contrast, sworn translations can only be performed by translators who have been sworn in. Sworn translation shows that the document translation is genuine, and it has two contain the seal of a sworn translator. Typically sworn translations are needed for legal documents like patent certificates and documents to incorporate a company.

Here is an article on the challenges of legal translation.

Importance of Formatting

In addition to all the challenges and considerations above, translators should also consider the correct formatting, depending on the purpose for which you will use the document.


In the dual-column format, the original text is on one side of the page, while the translated text is in an adjacent column. This is especially helpful in translating contracts and makes the document easier to read and understand.

Clauses will be split so you can see what section of the translation corresponds to which section of the source document. Using dual-column formatting is best practices when dealing with contract translation.

Match Source Document

When using this type of format, the original document is translated in English or another language to be an exact copy of the source document. In other words, it will contain the same formatting, paragraphs, and overall structure.

Text Boxes

With this type of formatting, a textbox is simply placed over the source text. This is helpful when the document is in a PDF format, and a lawyer just wants to read the document without using it for any official purpose. By using this form of formatting, it eliminates the need to re-create the document.

This can be very useful in discovery-related translations. If you have scanned a lot of documents that don’t have a lot of text, it can be easier to use PDF boxes over the text to get quick translations done, as opposed to paying to recreate the document.

Information to Consider

When looking for a translator for any legal document, there are some vital things that you need to consider.

What is the purpose of the translation?

The first thing you should consider is the purpose of the translation. It's crucial to understand this as there may be many methods of handling the translation to get to the same outcome, which vary greatly in pricing.

For example, if a lawyer needs to simply find a certain section in a document so they can see what it says, they may opt to just translate the headers of a legal document to quickly find the section they are looking for, as opposed to paying to translate a lengthy document in its entirety.

What languages are in scope for project?

The next thing you should look at is the languages that will be used for the translation. In this way, you'll be able to narrow down your search for a translator, and you have to look for an expert in both languages, not only in a typical sense but also in a legal sense.

What countries or markets are in scope?

Once you know the languages, you also have to know which countries will be in scope for the translation. This is necessary because you have to find a translator with the required skills and knowledge of the legal systems of both countries that will enable them to effectively and accurately translate the document.

How do you want it formatted?

Depending on the specific use of the translation, you'll have to consider which of the formatting options, as mentioned earlier, you'll want the translator to use. Different formatting options may be required for certain legal translations as well.

What turnaround time do you need?

It's a simple fact, legal document translation often comes with strict deadlines. Translation companies can also assign premiums to rush projects, so it is important to consider when you need this done to avoid these fees.

Do you need the document certified?

As we've shown above, you may need the document to be certified or sworn for legal document translation. Depending on the specific use of the document, you will then be able to decide which of these you need. Once you've made your decision, you'll need to look for either a certified translator or a sworn translator.

Costs and Fee Structures

When you hire a translator for your legal document translation, you can expect that you'll have to pay them based on a few different costs or fee structures.


This is the most popular and common cost or free structure you'll find in the legal translation industry. It's very convenient because it's simple to calculate the price based on the number of translated words. Per-word rates are a simple way to create flat-fee quotes for clients.


Although translators can charge an hourly rate for the translation, it isn't easy to price a specific job based on an hourly rate. This is because skilled translators will complete their jobs faster than inexperienced translators. As a result, the skilled translators will be paid less than the inexperienced translators for the same amount of work.


Sometimes translators prefer to charge based on the number of pages that a document contains. For instance, this could be where they cannot obtain the exact number of words used in the source document. For example, an example would include documents that were scanned to a PDF file, like medical records or court documents.

Flat Fee

A flat fee cost or fee structure is not the preferred pricing model for translation services because it creates price ambiguity. Although this is usually used when translating Chinese, Japanese, or Korean texts, most translators don't use it. If your chosen translator does, it's helpful to discuss with them how the price is calculated.

Getting Help With Legal Document Translation

Hopefully, this guide was helpful in explaining what legal document translation is, when it's used, and some things you have to look at when hiring a translator.

Get a free quote from ContractsGlobal for your next project. We know what we’re doing and can help you make the best decisions on how to translate your legal documents.

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