“Next Practices” After 3,000 Years: The Coming Revolution in Legal Translation

Legal translation is nearly as old as law itself. As one can imagine, a field so old as to be attested to by versions of the Egyptian-Hittite Peace Treaty of 1271 B.C. preserved in Akkadian cuneiform on clay tablets and in Egyptian hieroglyphics can be pretty slow to evolve, particularly in the region that birthed it. The standard amongst Israeli law firms has long been to use bilingual articulated clerks or young lawyers fresh out of school to do the job of translating legal documents. This system has become one of the entrenched “best practices” in the Israeli legal community. But it is time to disrupt this system with “next practices” – the outsourcing the translation and proofreading of contracts, pleadings, etc. to teams of skilled and expert legal translators.

The Hittite Version of the Treaty of Kadesh (on display at Istanbul Archaeology Museums)

The Hittite Version of the Treaty of Kadesh (on display at Istanbul Archaeology Museums)

While the “best practice” places the value on keeping work in-house, the “next practice” of utilizing expert legal translation firms guarantees the highest quality, as it puts the task in the hands of experts with years of experience. Over the next few weeks, we will explore why this “next practice” is rightfully the future of the industry. This week will focus on the value of expertise and keeping translations error-free.

Mistakes in the translation of legal documents are remarkably costly and have led to international disputes (such as the case with the bungled translation of the Treaty of Waitangi) and in criminal cases has led to the dismissal of charges, mistrials and even false convictions. In torts, contract, and corporate law, mistranslation has cost corporations hundreds of millions of dollars in penalties, lawsuits, and legal fees. Using the right team of legal translators like the firm I work with LinguistIt who only uses experienced with legal backgrounds makes sure those mistakes don’t happen.

The reason that even your most fluently bilingual interns, young lawyers, or clerks are more mistake-prone is because they are trained and are supposed to be training to be lawyers, and have not received special education in legal translation.  Even a natural inclination for translation cannot replace the experience of translating documents for years. After all, by the time they become proficient or have enough experience to do a great job,  they will likely no longer be interns, young lawyers, or clerks, and a new batch of rookies will begin. This lack of experience by even the most gifted bilingual lawyers often leads to embarrassing and costly mistakes.

The Hieroglyphic text of the treaty inscribed on a temple wall in Karnak.

The Hieroglyphic text of the treaty inscribed on a temple wall in Karnak.

Indeed, the “next practice” is built on the understanding that there is a difference between a bilingual person who was educated in law and lawyers who focus on translating legal documents (such as at LinguistIt, where our team is made up and supervised by lawyers who have practiced law before specializing in translation). Legal translators need to quickly navigate not only legalese in two languages but make sure that the documents are readable and understandable, while retaining their intended meaning. Skill is required to recognize the reality that “every translation is an interpretation,” while at the same time making sure that linguistic interpretation does not deviate from the intentions of the original source. Being able to deftly navigate these consideration and save you, your business, or your firm from embarrassment or worse – requires great legal translation skills. And like in sports, these skills are the admixture of a discernible amount of talent, a deep knowledge of the fundamentals, and lots and lots of practice and experience. Put simply: with a major client, a big deal or a pending lawsuit – you want to have the advantage, so stop using the “best practices” and use the “next practice,” and call in the experts.

Next week, we will explore how LinguistIt not only presents an alternative to in-house translation but is also disrupting orthodoxies of the giant catch-all freelance translation agencies by employing lawyers who are also experienced translators. This allows them to ensure that their work is useful, accurate and customized to your needs. We will explain how moving from “best practices” to “next practices” will save your company or the lawyers in your firm aggravation and time that could otherwise be concentrated on your clients and your business.

Ever Heard of a ‘Backronym’?

Everyone knows what acronyms are – they’re everywhere! Acronyms make up some of the most famous ‘words’ in the English language, and in Hebrew? Well, forget about it – it’s nearly impossible to string together a sentence in conversational Hebrew without throwing in an acronym or two. #tash

But have you ever heard of backronyms? Yes, that’s a real thing and it’s about to blow your mind.


Acronyms such as NASA or NATO are words that were created based on a pre-exiting phrase or title. We didn’t make up the word nasa and then create a space program with the same name. NASA is the egg, not the chicken. Or, wait… which one comes first?

Anyway… backronyms are acronyms that were created for a specific set of words or phrasing. For example, “GROSS” – which is of course already an English word, but when it came to Calvin and Hobbes, this word is a backronym of Get Rid Of Slimy girlS.

Now that you’re familiar with the term, let’s see a few more backronyms that we use all the time.

  1. The USA PATRIOT Act. – “Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism Act”

That’s right – even the USA in this Act is an acronym… Who knew?

  1. SPECTRE – “Special Executive for Counter-intelligence, Terrorism, Revenge and Extortion”

In honor of the newest James Bond film featuring major crime syndicate SPECTRE, we would like you to know that this too is a backronym.



  1. SOS – “Save our Ship!” (or Souls)

It’s pretty simple when you think about it – to have an internationally known distress code be a straightforward cry for help. SOS also happens to be very quick when being sent in Morse code.

  1. AMBER Alert – “America’s Missing: Broadcast Emergency Response”

Back in 1996, Amber Hagerman was kidnapped in Texas and this event spawned the creation of this backronym that is now widely used in kidnapping events or scares.

  1. POSH – “Port Outbound, Starboard Home”

Sorry to all those who refer to others as posh, but the origin of this backronym is not that cool. It traces back (allegedly) to boat passengers traveling from England to India who wished to have the better cabins on the boat – which would be on the port side when they left and the starboard side on the way home.

Translation Innovation From Microsoft

Translation is manual. There’s no way around it – you need to convert the text of one language into another by translating the words. Whether you use a translation software or not, it’s going to take some time. Globalization is a great ideal for the translation industry but the lack of instantaneous output is a bit of an issue.

Pretty cool, huh?

Pretty cool, huh?

There is good news, though, as Microsoft is looking to solve the lack of automation in translation with it’s newest add-on to Skype, known as Skype Translator. The program is simple – you’re engaged in a video call and speak normally, and your speech text is translated by the system and played for the person on the other end. Say hello and they hear bonjour.

Simply put, Skype Translator is a pretty big deal. With as small as the world has become, many people find themselves far away and looking to interact with their family back home – family that may not speak the same language as you do but still wants to set up a video call. Skype Translator solves that issue.

Are you looking to meet with a potential client from another country? Well, now the language barrier no longer exists.

The best part of the new program is really the program itself. Skype Translator continues to grow and improve the more people use it as each statement or sound bite from either side is stored in Skype’s database and is used to find the best translation for that conversation and further communication using the same languages.

Have a look at how the Skype Translator platform works, from the team behind the technology:


Without a doubt, the Skype Translator is far from perfect, but the innovation behind the project is excellent and will definitely help boost the push towards more optimized translation and an even smaller world of business.

Kickstarter Campaign Expands Scope of Translation

Translation from language to another comes in many shapes and forms and sometimes can be used in ways that could only work in the year 2015. One man has created a (successful) Kickstarter campaign to fund the translation of literary classic Moby Dick, and that would be completely normal and rather uninteresting if the target language for the translation included actual words. On the contrary, this campaign is turning Ishmael’s battle on the high seas into an emoji-filled adventure.


‘Emoji Dick’. All 6,438 sentences of one of the greatest books of all time have officially been translated into emojis and compiled into one serious looking book. The creator of this campaign, Fred Benenson, hired people off of Amazon’s Mechanical Turk freelance program and these workers spent nearly 4 million seconds (more than 1,000 hours) to produce such an incredible work.

What makes this story so interesting – besides the fact that it’s Moby Dick in emojis, which is awesome – is how Benenson’s campaign expanded the horizons of the translation world. Translating a literary text is no longer limited to the confines of source language into target language but rather from one form of communication into another.

The year 2015 is all about memes, selfies, emojis; essentially expression of one’s self beyond words. Emoji Dick represents that – the ability to enjoy such an incredible part of culture and literature through a fun and expressive millennial form of text. I think it’s great.


Can you read Moby Dick using only emojis?

In fact, Benenson could be onto something. Could translating books into emojis help children read heavier stories at an earlier age? Would the pictures and intuitive creativity of full sentences expressed in several images create smarter minds? It’s definitely possible, and this could be the beginning of an entirely new trend in literature and translation.

The Impact of Bad Translation

For those of us who are multi-lingual, our mother tongue still greatly influences how we interpret things or present them in any other languages spoken.

If we are not careful or do not receive specialized knowledge, it is so easy to make assumptions based on our own culture or language, including rote translations that don’t take into account the other culture, attitudes and expressions. Oftentimes these seemingly small or insignificant assumptions can make or break a legal case or a business deal.

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When you add in the difference between legal systems, even when a word is technically translated correctly, the concept can vary significantly from one legal system to another to the point of derailing a case or transaction. Furthermore, since the accuracy of a legal document often depends on syntax and careful word selection, things cannot simply be translated by anyone who knows the language.

Even when a business deal is made between individuals of two different nationalities, the expectations upon closing could mean very different things. One theoretical example is given regarding a real estate deal between a US national and an Italian national that portrays a difference in the understanding of notaries and public instruments. If only the translating lawyer knew this, it would have saved the theoretical individuals involved a great deal of headache.

In an actual case from a few years ago, Canadian Supreme Court Justice Anthony Hill had to declare a mistrial as a result of a court interpreter mistranslating a number of texts, including translating “sexual assault” as “physical assault” and “two days” as a “couple of weeks.” These errors were deemed sufficient for the entire case against Hindi-speaking defendant Vishnu Dutt Sharma to be jeopardized.

Additionally, having a good legal translator likely made the difference between winning and losing in a case between shoemaker Christian Louboutin and fashion house Yves Saint-Laurent. Louboutin won the case after hiring very proficient legal translators who had experience with many international legal cases.

These are only a few examples, with many others existing around the world. When you are dealing with international legal cases or business deals involving not only individuals who speak different languages, but also very different legal and financial procedures, it is best to err on the side of caution so that you don’t lose a great deal of time and money.

More Than Just Translation

When court cases become multi-lingual, the need for a translator quickly becomes apparent to everyone. What is often less obvious, to the detriment of all involved, is the need for a specialized translator with legal experience.

Legal language is difficult to comprehend in one single tongue, let alone attempting to translate from one language to another! A lack of legal knowledge or experience can result in lengthy delays and even in massive mistakes or misunderstandings.

One example of this can be seen in an ongoing case in Ohio involving defendants accused of human trafficking and enslaving women for sex. This would be complicated enough without the extra dimension added by the fact that the defendants do not speak any English! Now, this case is expected to drag out for up to two weeks and be much less clear as a result of inexperienced translators dealing with complex legal jargon.

Such examples abound. One study looked at the effect of bad translation and inconsistencies between the English and French versions of a convention involving liability of airlines for death or injury to passengers and baggage losses.  Apparently, this has led to the dismissal of legitimate claims.

How much more this must happen within court cases, when there is pressure for a quick translation. If the person is not comfortable with legal terminology, it could greatly impact the understanding of the case by the main parties involved.

It is clear from these examples that simply hiring a translator will not suffice, especially for complex legal matters. A legal translator is more than simply a translator.

Language and Cultural Behaviors

Language is undoubtedly one of the most crucial elements of a society and, when mastered and used well, can also be a powerful agent to move that society towards change or progress. But could language actually shape the culture and how people think or behave? How much influence does our mother tongue have on what we see as normative behaviors and even on how we think and prioritize?

Many people who have learned other languages fluently report behaving and thinking differently in the other tongue; however, they often attribute the change to culture. While it could very well be a “chicken and the egg” argument, some researchers claim, on the other hand, that it may be the language itself that creates the behavior and, therefore, the culture.

For instance, one classic and controversial proponent of this idea was Benjamin Whorf, a linguist who studied the languages of the native peoples in the Americas and argued that because these languages lacked certain elements, such as the flow of time, their cultures had a completely different perception of reality and set of behaviors. Whorf took his research to an extreme, claiming that one’s mother tongue prevents a person from even grasping things that the language has no word for. This is obviously not the case, as seen by people who gain fluency in other languages. But it may speak volumes about the lens we see the world through and how we unconsciously prioritize concepts.

So, using Hebrew and English as an example, there are certain concepts given a word for which there is no word in English and vice-versa. The term “dafka,” translates closest to “in spite of” or similar to saying “of all things,” such as if you were to say, “Of all places, dafka, she chose to come here.” English speakers understand the idea a bit but we place much less priority on it than a Hebrew speaker. Another example would be the Hebrew word, “tachles,” which means “to the point and without formalities.” Tachles and dafka are two very important elements of Israeli culture that seep into Israelis’ behavior on a daily basis.

On the other hand, there are some English words that have no Hebrew equivalent. There is no Hebrew word for “coincidence,” for example-a concept that English speakers take for granted!

Anna Wierzbicka describes such words as “key concepts” or “key words” that reflect core elements of a culture. Guy Deutscher also illustrates this concept while focusing especially on color and the words for different colors, with a special look at the history of the color blue, in his Through the Language Glass.

While much more could be discussed on the subject, it does leave a few questions: How many concepts that we see as great priorities are a result of language? How much of our behavior is actually shaped by our language and its emphases? What happens when one becomes fluent in multiple languages? Does this broaden not only language skills but also one’s concept of the world and reality?



When Not to Use Google Translate

While Google Translate has revolutionized the ability to quickly and cheaply translate online, the over dependence on this tool has led to many a blunder in the legal and business world. Yes, it is a great tool when you need a quick, cost-efficient way to translate the occasional word or phrase. However, there are certain services that are simply best performed by a person.

The problem usually arises when the piece needing translating includes a lot of idioms, lingo, or legal or financial terms that Google simply doesn’t know what to do with. In one example that I found, a blogger writes about simply trying to translate a common word for “sheet” in French, taken from IKEA’s French site, which Google translated into “murder.” If she didn’t know better, she might think IKEA is selling “murder” sheets!

One well-known blog also demonstrates how a simple web page name, “The Linguistic Fun Page,” could eventually end up being changed to the “the linguistic pagination of the diversion” in Spanish. Also, one might wonder whether some of the mistranslations here could have been prevented, had they hired a professional translator! You can see how a simple mistranslation could cause a restaurant to post, “Don’t stand there and be hungry. Come on in and get fed up.”

On a more serious note, another issue that arises with Google Translate involved confidentiality. When translations are placed into Google Translate, violations of confidentiality can occur. According to well-known translator Jost Zetsche, online translation tools should never be utilized when translating legal material. Whenever text is sent to Google, it becomes Google’s property. You can read more in Google’s Terms of Service.

So, while Google Translate may be great for when you forgot that one word and need to send out an email in another language or you just need a simple translation job, for complex legal or business translations, it is probably best to turn to real people. You definitely don’t want to end up with one of these epic translation fails: 8 Epic Translation Fails.