How to start working as a legal translator

How to start working as a legal translatorLegal translation is a challenging field. Most translators steer clear of it because it takes a very specific set of skills. Moreover, translators may be found liable for damages if serious mistakes are made (which is actually true of all translations, but in the legal field, the consequences can be ever more serious). Many legal translators who translate into English and French are also lawyers. In North America, as far as I know, universities don’t offer full programs aimed at training legal translators. However, professionals who translate into Spanish are in luck because in some South American countries, such as Uruguay and Argentina, translators who opt for the traductorado público attend law school side by side with lawyers-to-be, but study both Common Law and Civil Law rather than Civil Law only. This is a great way to acquire a solid foundation in the different legal systems and their concepts, but it is by no means enough. There are also several universities that offer master’s degrees in legal translation, but of course, an undergraduate degree is required to be admitted, and these programs aren’t necessarily offered in all countries. For the translator who is not a lawyer or who didn’t graduate with a degree in legal translation, the road will be long, but not impossible, to travel. So what is an aspiring legal translator to do if they want to make it in the legal field? Here are some tips.

The first step towards translating in any field is comprehension. We can’t translate what we don’t understand. A good place to start by is reviewing the differences between Common Law and Civil Law as well as those between Common Law and Equity, the rules that historically supplemented Common Law in certain instances and that nowadays have become the branch of the law that deals with trusts, remedies, etc. Why is it important to know the two systems? Because when translating between two languages that traditionally follow different systems, as it is the case with Spanish and English or French and English, the translator must be aware that certain concepts don’t have exact equivalents in the target language and must make decisions based on the audience that will read the translation and the country where the translation will be used. There is plenty of information on both systems on the Internet, not only of a general nature, but also on specific countries, as the same system will not necessarily be identical in all countries.

Another good way to gain more knowledge in the legal field is to take courses. There are many paid courses specifically developed for translators. In Spanish, I particularly like the courses offered by Cálamo & Cran, a translation firm from Madrid that has developed several online courses on legal translation. In French, you can find some beginners’ courses at Magistrad and more specific courses at the OTTIAQ. But there are also dozens of free law courses offered by universities on sites like Coursera, Open Learn, etc., which are a great way to start familiarizing yourself with the law.

To be able to write properly, however, reading legal documents is a must. On the Internet, you will find hundreds of motions, writs, appeals and court judgments in any language you want. Analyzing and comparing them will give you an idea of the structure each language usually uses for such documents.

Resist the temptation to translate literally or to use the first word you find in the dictionary. And don’t accept legal translation contracts if you don’t think you are up to the job. The repercussions of badly translated legal documents can be serious for you and for the parties involved.

Be prepared to spend a large amount of time researching, especially at the beginning. Research will allow you to understand legal concepts and create glossaries and translator’s notes that will reduce translation time in the future.

Legal terms shouldn’t be considered in isolation. The same term may not mean the same thing or be translated the same way in criminal law and in law of torts, for instance. So it’s important to look for information within the relevant area of law.

If possible, find a mentor. An experienced legal translator will be able to help you with terminology, or at least point you in the right direction. If you have lawyer friends, ask them questions. Legalese can be difficult to decipher, not only because legal texts are notorious for their verbosity, but also because they are plagued with legal archaisms and words that are not interpreted according to their usual meaning (as in the case of “avoid” in the sense of declaring something void, or “upset” in the sense of modifying something, usually a court order). Add long sentences devoid of punctuation and you have a text that will surely give you a headache. To top it all off, you will not always translate perfectly written texts. Oftentimes, you’ll have difficulties understanding what the author tried to convey. That’s why turning to a practising lawyer, one who writes and files documents in court day in and day out, can be a great asset until you start getting the hang of the field.

Becoming a good legal translator doesn’t happen overnight. It takes a lot of researching, reading and studying, but it’s a very interesting field of practice. Good legal translators are usually very busy because they are not easy to find. Therefore, legal translation can be an extremely lucrative niche if you love the law and are willing to put in the time and effort.


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