Why is the legal translation so tricky?

Today, I will tell you how and why working on legal translation projects is tricky. 

When a text to be translated belongs to an Anglo-Saxon-based legal system (Common Law) and the target text to a Roman-based legal system (Civil Law), the translation work is highly complicated, as the bases of both systems are very different.

Thus, due to this non-coincidence of systems between the source text and the target text, the translation must seek not synonyms but EQUIVALENCES that produce the same legal effects as the original.

When translating a text of English Commercial Law, two official sources must be consulted: Common Law, the Companies Act 2006 (UK), and Civil Law, the Código das Sociedades Comerciais (Portugal). The goal is to find EQUIVALENCES in the two languages.

Pedro Coral Costa says that in situations of lack of equivalence, we should focus on the culture/legal system of departure, favoring “identification” and, at the same time, “focusing on the target culture.” He also states that when there is a lack of equivalence, we should try to use as much of the source text as possible. Still, functional equivalence is a good way of transposing a system to another with the target culture in mind.

In the text “A tradução de inglês para português de documentos constitutivos de sociedades” (The translation from English to Portuguese of certificates of incorporation or registration), Pedro Coral Costa draws conclusions that are very valid to summarize the meaning and importance of legal translation nowadays. 

The author states that the rise of international commercial companies and international trade has increased the demand for translations of corporate documents.

Due to the prominence of the English language in trade and international relations, these documents are mainly in English. On the other hand, most tax havens are based in Common Law areas, and the liberalism of these regimes attracts many investors. In addition, there is a tendency to invest in Portuguese-speaking countries, which increases the need to practice corporate acts in these countries.

So, it is evident that this type of translation is increasingly in demand, which seems to be an excellent job opportunity for translation professionals.

However, legal translation has characteristics that make it practically a world apart in the translation sector.

We have to “translate” the term from L1 to L2. However, we also have to make sure that its legal effect is the same or close to the source language’s impact – the differences between Common and Civil Law regimes are considerable.

This implies a need to have high technical training in Portuguese legislation and the Common Law legal systems. These projects always involve a high volume of pre-translation work and, ideally, post-translation with a review by a jurist or lawyer.

The time required to do a good job is long in legal translation. The investment in basic training by translators also enters the equation. The liability is very high – a mistake in a legal translation can carry serious consequences.

The profile of this kind of translator is very particular, and the price the market is willing to pay for this work is far from what would be fair for this difficulty level.

It is essential and fair that there is a most advantageous framework regarding the conditions under which legal translations are carried out. 

Is this a mission for Professional Associations? For the Portuguese State itself, which still does not meet the European convergence criteria concerning certified translators? We will see what the future has in store for us.

“Law is created by and for a society, responding to its needs at a given historical time. Each society defines its legal norms according to its perception of the world and the type of organization desired. Consequently, the legal language is linked to the legal system of each country, reflecting the history, evolution, and culture of this same system.” (Gurumac, 2011, p.12)