“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.

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.