7 best practices for hiring a legal translation firm

Legal translation has a higher need for accuracy than any other type of translation. Learn to select and hire the right firm with this in-depth guide.


As global commerce flourishes, the need for accurate translation of legal documents and instruments grows. Unlike other forms of translation, errors in legal translation may have significant consequences for one or both parties to a legal matter. The margin for error in legal document translation is zero.

With some due diligence and an understanding of the legal translation process, finding a qualified, trustworthy legal translator to help you transact international business becomes much easier. This article outlines everything you should know about legal translation to help you make an informed choice:

  • What is legal translation?
  • What types of documents require legal translation?
  • The importance of accuracy in legal translation
  • What challenges does legal translation pose?
  • The importance of confidentiality and security in legal translation
  • Collaboration between legal experts and translators
  • Best practices for selecting qualified legal translators

What is legal translation?

Legal translation is the process of translating documents, contracts, and other texts related to legal matters from one language to a different language. It requires a comprehensive understanding of the source material and expertise in the foreign language.

Successful translation isn’t just about creating documents in a new language. It must capture the nuance of language in a legal context and provide accurate legal information for the target geographic location. Legal translation involves complex terminology and technical terms requiring a specialized translator to represent the source content accurately.

What types of documents require legal translation?

Documentation is the cornerstone of almost every legal proceeding. Legal documents may establish the parties' identity, interests in a business deal or transaction, rights under the law, or recourse in the event of default. For this reason, every document connected to a legal matter must be translated with a high degree of accuracy and integrity.

These documents commonly require translation:

  • Identity documents such as licenses, birth certificates, adoption records, and name changes
  • Status documents like marriage certificates, divorce decrees, litigation information, immigration or residency documents, travel documents, and correctional documents
  • Transactional documents like deeds, purchase agreements, sales contracts, wills, trusts, and settlements.
  • Evidentiary documents, such as police reports, witness statements, official testimony, and subpoenas.
  • Financial documents like earnings statements, annual reports, tax returns, and certified financial statements
  • Business documents, such as service contracts, formation and dissolution documents, partnership contracts, agency agreements, and non-disclosure agreements.

Any document required to establish a person or business’s identity, ownership, rights, or status in a legal matter should have accurate and complete translation to ensure smooth proceedings.

The importance of accuracy in legal translation

Legal documents have consequences for everyone who interacts with them, including the concerned parties, law firms, and attorneys who use them. A legal document translation must be strictly accurate to uphold its integrity and enforceability.

  • Enforceability: Legal documents are often binding instruments. Therefore, mistranslation or ambiguity can have severe consequences for all parties to the agreement. Incorrect translation may result in a litigant or party to a contract suffering a loss of rights or recourse.

  • Intent: The translated document must accurately represent the intent of the original document. If the nuance of the source document is lost in the translation process, it may have implications for a transaction, create conflicts of interest, or introduce unintended loopholes.

  • Legality: Translations that create ambiguity or fail to address statutory differences between the source document and the target geographic area may create legal jeopardy or invalidate the legal instrument. For instance, a document that outlines compensation not legal in the target location may render a contract void or require rewrites to remedy the issue.

  • Liability: Inaccurate translations cause miscommunication between parties to a contract, leading to extra costs, court fees, or other penalties. Depending on translation issues in their documentation, these costs may become the financial and legal responsibility of one party.

What challenges does legal translation pose?

Every country has specific terminology and formatting requirements for legal documents. What is considered pro forma or boilerplate in one part of the world may require adjustments in the target geographic area. A legal translator must have an in-depth understanding of the customary terminology and structure of legal documents in the target area, and be able to create documents from the source material that satisfy all legal prerequisites and retain the intent and substance of the source.

Risk of ambiguity

Linguistic differences are a common challenge in professional legal translation. The structure of language is complex, country-specific, and sometimes idiosyncratic:

  • Use of formal or gender-specific pronouns
  • Superlatives and honorifics used in specific cultures or settings
  • Word order conventions and variations in sentence structure
  • Use of articles, such as the definite article “the” which is used in English but omitted in Spanish
  • Grammatical gender, such as occurs in some romance languages like French
  • Writing conventions like capitalization for nouns
  • Text direction, for instance, left-to-right presentation of written English versus right-to-left in Arabic

Missing the context or specific language construction in a legal document can give rise to all types of issues and ambiguities in the final document. While these may seem trivial, they may have consequences for the enforceability of the document or the sensitivities of the parties involved in the legal matter.

Jurisdictional differences

Depending on the country where a legal document is created, there may be significant variations in the document’s language, structure, and conventions. For instance, German law requires certain provisions that an English-language contract would not, while French law is known for its rigorous approach to contracts.

Moreover, countries often have particular concepts or principles of law that must be carefully identified and addressed when dealing with a cross-border transaction. Regional differences also present challenges, as different jurisdictions often have different interpretations of standard terms. What might be considered acceptable in one region could be completely unacceptable in another.

Cultural nuances

Local customs and practices impact the language and terms of drafting a contract. The cultural nuance of a document is an essential aspect of professional translation, as it may introduce friction between the parties involved. For this reason, a legal translator should be fluent in both the source and target language and have a working knowledge of the legal language, conventions, and cultures participating in the legal matter.


Sometimes, a party intends to have details “lost in translation.” A legal translator may encounter fraudulent documents such as birth certificates, marriage documents, testamentary documents like wills, or other fake legal documents meant to give an individual unlawful access to funds or entry to a foreign country. Legal translators can avoid these issues through document certification.

The importance of confidentiality and security in legal translation

Legal documentation is often personal and confidential. The contents of a legal document may be sensitive or restricted by non-disclosure protections. For this reason, the legal translator has a similar fiduciary duty to the parties in a legal matter as those parties’ legal representatives.

Confidentiality on the part of a translator is paramount to the business relationship. Translators often have access to proprietary information such as financial statements, intellectual property, trade secrets, or reputational information that could cause real-world harm if disclosed.

Secure communication is another critical component of legal document translation services. The translator should have the means to transmit documents, questions, information, and ancillary information with secure encryption.

Collaboration between legal experts and translators

The legal translator’s unspoken motto should be, “When in doubt, ask.” While translators may have in-depth knowledge of the legal conventions and linguistic nuance of each party’s respective locale, there is no substitute for the advice of a qualified legal professional in times of uncertainty.

Translators specializing in legal translation collaborate with legal experts to ensure the intent and enforceability of legal documents remain intact once the translation is complete. Legal review by an attorney authorized to practice in the target geographic area is the best way to ensure documents maintain their integrity and do the job they were created to perform.

Best practices for selecting qualified legal translators

  1. Get references from a trusted legal source: Legal firms specializing in international negotiations often build relationships with translation services during their work. When in doubt, ask your legal representative if they use a legal translator and if they could recommend a company.

  2. Hire a reputable translation company: Reputable translation companies will have a solid online presence with testimonials. They should also be able to provide references for the translators who will work on your project. Ask for references and conduct due diligence before committing to a translator or a firm.

  3. Use a credentialed translator: Ask if your translator is credentialed or certified by a recognized body, such as the American Translators Association (ATA) or a certifying body within your country or jurisdiction. A legal translator should demonstrate years of experience with both languages involved in the translation and legal training and background in the relevant countries or jurisdictions.

  4. Choose a native speaker for the target language: Native speakers grasp the language, nuance, and conventions of the target geographic area and should be the first choice for translation services. Where possible, select a translator with native language proficiency in the target language and extensive knowledge of the source language.

  5. Be sure your translator signs a confidentiality agreement: Legal documents require extra layers of protection. A legal translator should offer confidentiality as part of the translation package. Be sure the translation contract includes strong language and protections such as confidentiality and non-disclosure clauses.

  6. Use a translator that certifies documents: Document certification provides extra confidence in the completed document. Look for a firm that certifies its translations and guarantees accuracy in its marketing and contract language.

  7. Learn about the technology your translator uses: AI and machine translation have made the translation process faster and easier. While AI is no substitute for the skill and credibility of a certified translator, many firms enhance their offering with AI-assisted translation. Ask about the methods and types of translation assistance a firm provides, and be sure their accuracy clause includes language about AI-assisted methods.

Translate legal texts with Smartling—quality guaranteed

Smartling offers translation services for every application and need, from marketing and technical translation to certified legal translation projects. Smartling Translate is a proprietary translation application trusted by legal teams to create accurate translations of contracts, wills, identity documents, and more.

Smartling combines cutting-edge translation and security technology with industry-leading, certified, and native language translators to produce quality translations and secure handling of the most sensitive documents. Our translation services combine the best turnaround time and accuracy of AI-enhanced translation with the unmatched accuracy of highly qualified human translators.

To see what Smartling can do to empower your legal teams with safe, accurate, and trustworthy legal translation services, book a meeting with one of our translation services specialists.