The 3 Most Important Issues in Translating Legal Documents

The need for legal translation is all around us: undergrads who want to study abroad, business professionals who travel internationally, and prospective employees of global companies are just a few of the individuals who require this language service.

Types of Legal Documents

Some of the most common document types requested in translating legal documents include:

  • Business Contracts
  • Wills and Trusts
  • Birth Certificates
  • Marriage Certificates
  • Financial Statements
  • Employment Paperwork
  • Legal Briefs
  • Case Summaries
  • Adoption Papers

Legal translation is a widespread practice, but it is also among the most demanding and high-stakes forms of language service. Below are three important issues to consider when seeking legal translation.

1) Subject-Matter Expertise

While general texts require strong translation skills and professional experience, legal documents have an additional facet that demands attention: highly-specific language. Legal translators must be subject-matter experts in their chosen field to correctly convey the specialized language of the source material. They should possess a working knowledge of both the source- and target-language countries’ legal systems, accompanied by a familiarity with cultural norms and standards. Moreover, the legal field itself is wide and varied, which means that further specialization in corporate, tax, environmental, or real estate law (to name a few!) is also required.

2) Cultural Nuance

There is a great deal of diversity in how different cultures address different aspects of communication. This fact becomes all too apparent in international business proceedings, where the success of major contracts and agreements depends in large part on complex cultural factors. The level of formality and appropriate use of honorifics, for example, is imperative for translating into languages such as Japanese and Arabic. There are high-level linguistic aspects to consider as well, such as properly rendering names and titles into a language with a different alphabet system. Accordingly, professional legal translators must also be native speakers of the target language and be intimately familiar with the culture.

3) Precision

Yes, accuracy and precision are the hallmarks of quality translation in any industry. In the context of legal documents, however, there is seldom such a thing as a “minor error”. A faulty translation of a court document, for example, can delay the entire legal process. Mistranslations on a job-seeker’s health record can lead to a rejection letter from the prospective employer. For this reason, ALTA Language Services only works with established legal translators who have a minimum of five years’ experience in the legal field. For every project, their translations also undergo a thorough review process to ensure that no errors stand between you and your international goal.


Translating legal documents is one of the specialties of ALTA Language Services. With 30 years in the field of legal translation, ALTA provides consistent high-quality translations from expert linguists and translators. Learn more about our Legal Translation Services and contact us today to receive a free translation quote!

Maria Khodorkovsky covers research at the intersection of language, psychology, and society for ALTA Language Services. Her work has appeared in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Curbed, and on the websites of the Terminology Coordination Unit of the European Parliament and the National Museum of Language. Maria studied Russian Translation at the Monterey Institute of International Studies.

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