Legal translation

For most non-professionals, a translation seems to be a simple enough process of taking words from one language and restituting them in another language with the necessary grammatical adjustments.

Though this covers the general idea of what a translation entails, it is woefully inadequate when referring to legal translations, as each country has its own legal system, with its own particularities.

Without entering into a detailed study of the intricacies of any legal entity, a glance at a sample of translation problems arising simply from the official institutions of two different countries will illustrate the difficulty of legal translations. Two different legal entities will have either:

1.           the same institution, governed in the same way. This occurrence is extremely rare, if not non-existent;

2.           the same institution, governed differently (even if only slightly);

3.           an institution present in one legal system but extinct in the other;

4.           an institution present in one legal system but absent in the other.

The first case poses virtually no problem, the legal translator needs only to check the translation of the statute, ruling or other used in the target country and ensure that they match.

A simple example of the second point is the locution "House of Representatives". Intuitively, everyone thinks he knows the meaning of the word. However, depending on the country, it refers to either a unicameral legislature or to the lower chamber of a bicameral legislature. Or, as is the case in Israel, it has a different name altogether, the Knesset, that has it's own specific rules. The legal translator has to ensure that the translation of the term matches the reality in the target country.

The third case is best exemplified by the differences between former and existing monarchies. Though in these monarchies, terms like "Royal Edicts" still appear, the translation of the legal implications of such a term in non-monarchic governmental systems implies that the legal translators fully understands both.

The fourth and last point is best illustrated by the differences between countries where separation between State and religion is fully or partly implemented or is absent altogether. This is particularly important in all that relates to family law, such as marriage, divorce and inheritance, where religious courts are particularly important in countries where religious authorities are traditionally very involved.

These are just some very basic examples of the difficulties encountered by a legal translator in the course of his work. Despite President Barak Obama's recommendation to use automated translations extensively, until the advent of automated lawyer's office, it is unlikely that machines will perform legal translations.