Legal Translation: Ensuring Accuracy and Compliance

For companies doing business internationally, as well as Canadian companies, required to make documents available in both English and French, high-quality legal translation is critical. But to get documents that serve their intended purpose without increasing your company’s liability, you need to understand the unique challenges of legal translation and how your language services provider should address them.

What Types of Documents Require Legal Translation?

Legal translation is an umbrella term for documents drafted by legal counsel or a company’s legal department, documents used in court, and even those required by government agencies.

  • Contracts

Professional Legal Translation

If your company does business with partners or vendors in other countries, you will likely need to translate contracts both to and from their local languages. Likewise, if you plan to rent or purchase land or facilities, you may need to translate the contracts provided by your lessor.

Canadian companies that do business in Quebec may also need to translate contracts. The recently passed Bill 96 requires even small businesses to have French-language contracts. 

  • Patents

If you are applying for a patent abroad, you will need to translate the application itself. You may also need to translate supporting documents such as diagrams, claims, and related correspondence. 

Each country has its own way of handling patents, so it is critical to work with experts who understand the patent process in the target country.

  • Court Documents

If your company becomes involved in a legal proceeding abroad – or one that involves evidence that is in a foreign language – you will need to involve a professional legal translation provider. This type of proceeding may require you to translate everything from bank statements to transcripts of depositions and even direct evidence such as text messages or emails that are part of the discovery process. 

The outcome of a legal process can hinge on individual words, so it is important to make sure that each document or piece of evidence is expertly translated.

In addition to translating evidence that may be presented, you may need to translate judgments, memos, or other information back into your language so that other team members can understand them.

  • Website Content

If your marketing plan includes a localized website, you will want to translate your terms and conditions and your privacy policy accordingly. 

In most countries, offering translated legal policies on your website is not mandatory, but it is a smart choice to protect yourself. However, Quebec’s Bill 96, which we mentioned above, means that businesses operating in Quebec must offer French translations of all content on their website, up to and including legal documents.

  • IT and Telecommunications Companies

Companies that sell software or telecommunications services may require translated versions of their contracts. For example, if your company develops software or apps, you may decide to translate your end-user license agreement (EULA) when launching your product in a new market. Similarly, if your sales model is Software-as-a-Service (SaaS), you will want to offer translated contracts for end users so they understand the terms and regulations of their contracts.

Telecommunications companies will want to do likewise. They may also translate acceptable use policies and service level agreements, as well as network security policies for their enterprise clients. 

Finally, many media and telecom companies operating in multiple countries also find that they need to translate customer complaint forms filed by local users so that their legal team can respond and remain compliant with local law.

Your Legal Translation Checklist (Items to Localize)

Below is the list of documents that fall under the category of legal translation.

Consulting Agreements

Employee Handbooks

Refund Policy

Distribution Agreements

NDA & Confidentiality Agreements

Dispute Resolution


Government & Legal Correspondence

Arbitration Agreement


Product User Agreement

Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA)


Terms of Service (ToS)

Accessibility Policy

Licensing Agreements

Terms of Use (ToU)

Age Verification Policy

Articles of Incorporation

End User License Agreement (EULA)

Health & Safety Warnings


Data Processing Agreement (DPA)

End of Service or End of Life Policy

Minutes of Meetings

Data Sovereignty Policy

Notification & Communication Policies

Financial Reports

Acceptable Use Policy (AUP)

User Conduct Policy

Compliance documents

Electronic Signature Consent

Cookie Policy


Subscription Agreement

Safety Regulations

Employment Contracts


User-generated Content Policy

Specific Challenges in Legal Translation


Legal translation by translators with legal background

When translating legal documents, confidentiality is paramount. Your language services provider should have measures in place to protect the security of your documents, including:

  • Non-disclosure agreements for anyone who oversees the documents
  • Secure terminology management resources, such as translation memories and termbases
  • Specific file transfer and storage protocols

Additional measures might include audits of individual linguists’ workspaces for security lapses or the requirement not to use cloud-based translation tools. 

Different legal systems

Not only do legal translators need to have a good grasp of terminology, but they also need to be aware of the differences between legal systems in your country and the country for which the document is intended. 

Some countries, such as the United States and the United Kingdom, use common law, which involves the review of precedents and case law. Other countries, such as France and Spain, use the civil law system, which emphasizes codes and statutes. 

In the Americas, many countries inherited the legal system from the country that colonized them. In Canada, this means that both systems are in active use today – the English-speaking part of the country uses common law (as in the UK), while Quebec relies on civil law (as does France). 


In order to hold up in court, a legal document needs to be consistent with itself. Using different terms to refer to the same concept may cause problems.

To avoid consistency issues, your translation team will need to create a glossary and style guide before beginning translation. During the translation process, computer-aided translation (CAT) tools will use these documents to identify terminology inconsistencies. 

Terminology precision

It is nearly impossible to overstate the importance of using correct terminology in legal translation. When documents are parsed word-for-word by a client’s attorney or even a judge, a single mistranslated word can cause significant expenses.

The Shanghai Maritime Court once reported that approximately 5% of the disputes it saw in court were related to low-quality translations. In particular, they indicated that many expressions had one common meaning but an entirely different one in a maritime context. If the translator was not familiar with maritime law specifically, they were likely to translate using the everyday meaning. 

Local knowledge is similarly important. For example, as mentioned above, the United States and the United Kingdom have common law systems. But some terms have entirely different meanings in each country. Both countries use the term “voir dire” – a French phrase with Latin origins. In the UK, it refers to evidence admission, while in the US, it has to do with jury selection. A translator working from English into Spanish or Chinese needs to be aware of the meaning within the national context.

Translator Expertise

While we are using the term “legal translation” to cover many areas of practice, we want to emphasize the importance of having a translator with experience in a specific area. Experience with family law or mergers and acquisitions does not mean that a translator will deliver a good patent translation.

The best legal translators live in the country for which the document is being targeted and are familiar with the local legal system. They have some legal background, whether as an attorney, a paralegal, or having completed some other type of formal studies, and pay close attention to developments in the legal field in both their source and target countries. 

Why You Need Professional Legal Translation Services

In 2011, the government of South Korea was forced to delay free-trade agreements with both the United States and the European Union (twice) due to a huge number of translation errors in the English version of each treaty. 

Many of these were basic errors, such as translating “epidemiological” as “skin-care solutions” (confusing it with the word “epidermic”). Not only were there myriad errors but they were only detected when a legal scholar found the original Korean text to be poorly written and started looking at the English. From there, he began reporting errors to the ministry involved.

The issues stemmed in part from a rushed and inconsistent translation process. A team of 10 from four different government departments was asked to translate over 1300 pages of Korean text into English in four months, in addition to other work they were doing. 

These blunders forced South Korea to withdraw their initial translations, slowing down the negotiation process. They also generated enough public backlash that the Minister of Trade had to issue a formal apology.

Looking at this story, we can see many ways that the legal translation process could have been improved. For a legal document of this size, consistency is critical – a glossary and style guide must be established, and a translation memory should be shared among translators. 

Translators should be chosen based on their expertise within a given legal field, not merely their availability. 

Once translated, the document should be reviewed by an experienced legal editor, who will identify translation errors and ensure consistency throughout the document.  

Looking for a Legal Translation Partner?

Art One Translations has a pool of in-country legal translation experts in over 90 languages, all bound by an NDA. Based on the type of legal document you need to translate, and the countries involved, we will handpick the correct linguists for your project. We use a strict quality assurance process to ensure accuracy, the most advanced CAT tools to ensure terminology consistency, and we will work with you to accommodate any specific confidentiality requirements you have. Contact us today to discuss your project.

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