How to Translate Legal Documents: 7 Challenges and 6 Tips

How to Translate Legal Documents

Legal translation is probably the hardest form of translation – regardless of language. And there’s a reason for that. Legal jargon is technical, contextual, complex, and generally harder to understand.

For all of these reasons – and others we’ll discuss below – legal translation is expensive. After all, in addition to being harder to translate, translating legal documents usually means there’s a lot of money at stake for the company that wants the translation.

For example, many companies want to sign contracts for trade, supplies, or services with companies in other countries. This usually means a financial transaction is involved and a native legal translator is required.

Let’s look at the different types of legal documents, the challenges of legal translation, and tips on how to translate legal documents.

What is a legal document?

A legal document is a document prepared by a lawyer, business, or person in order to conduct an activity. In many cases, legal documents are prepared by a lawyer, or group of lawyers, to conduct an agreement, partnership, or business transaction.

The Collins Dictionary defines a legal document as “a document concerning a legal matter [or] a document drawn up by a lawyer.”

Meanwhile, says a legal document is when “two or more parties enter into an agreement and it is confirmed by the placement of their signatures at the end.”

The most common type of legal document is a contract, which can take various forms and shapes.

For example, when a company wants to hire an employee, they sign a contract that includes the terms between the employer and the employee.

Types of legal documents

Though contracts are the most common type of legal document, they are certainly not the only ones.

Here are a few more examples of legal documents:

  • Checks (or cheques)
  • Power of attorney
  • Deeds
  • Wills
  • Sale documents
  • marriage/divorce certificates
  • Legal settlements
  • Legal bonds
  • Consumer disputes
  • Arbitration agreements
  • Civil court forms
  • Criminal court forms
  • Family court forms
  • Application for child custody
  • Loan agreements
  • Service agreements
  • Procurement agreements
  • Intellectual property rights
  • Supply agreements
  • partnership agreements
  • Birth certificates

And there are certainly more types of legal documents, especially as new services, products, and needs emerge.

Legal translation problems

As you can see when it comes to legal documents, there are lots of options.

And each of these comes with its legal jargon and accordingly requires effort, expertise, and discipline to translate.

Here are the top seven problems that arise when translating legal texts:

  • Complex legal jargon

Legal translation is complex. And there are a few contributors to this complexity. Chief among those contributors is the legal jargon, which may differ based on the type of legal document being translated.

Every language in the world has its own formats and legal jargon. So a company looking to translate a contract can’t just translate it as it would a newspaper article.

They would need to be aware of the jargon used for this type of contract along with the terminology for their business and industry in a different language.

  • Complex structures

The second element that makes legal translation challenging is the use of complex sentence structures.

Your school teacher may have advised you against run-on sentences. Apparently, no one told lawyers about this rule.

Legal language comprises very long sentences with lots of non-defining clauses – such as this one that may come between dashes or commas – along with generally complex terms.

If you’ve ever read a contract out loud, you’d have probably run out of breath a few times while reading a single sentence.

  • Legal language isn’t for the average reader

Often referred to as legalese, legal language isn’t clear to the average reader. In fact, many English language teachers would struggle with reading a legal document.

Legal language is sophisticated and meant to be read by experienced lawyers.

Rendering legal language, unfortunately, doesn’t mean or involve translating into clear language. For example, when a legal German document is translated into English, it isn’t rendered as plain English, but as complex legalese English.

  • Requires specialized native legal translators

For the abovementioned reasons, legal translation requires experienced legal and native translators.

You may find many translators, but you’ll find few legal translators. The reason is that legal translation requires a specific type of mindset, expertise in dealing with complex writing, and a lot of patience.

Legal translation is not something you can whip up in a day. Nor can you learn it in a day. It requires patience, practice, and meticulous attention to detail.

Arabic legal translation is no exception. Arabic is generally a complex language that’s characterized by long sentences. However, when translating a legal document from Arabic into English, lengthy sentences need to be rendered in the same way. 

Similarly, translating legal documents from English into Arabic requires a high degree of meticulousness and a strong understanding of Arabic grammar, where weak phrasing may result in a legal loophole.

  • Takes a long time to translate and review

Because of its complexity, legal translation not only requires a long time to translate but also a while to review.

Once the translation phase is complete, the complexities move on to the reviewer.

In many companies, once the reviewer is done, a lawyer is tasked with reviewing the contract or legal document before presenting it to the company to be signed.

This is often done internally when a company is doing its own translation work.

Multilingual lawyers are often tasked with undertaking some legal translation work at the start of their careers.

  • Requires an up-to-date legal glossary

In order to embark on the legal translation process, the legal translator, whether independently or within a translation agency, needs to have an up-to-date legal glossary.

It’s best to have a glossary for each industry to help translators know what to look for and become familiar with legal terms faster.

  • Mistranslation can cause legal problems

One of the biggest problems that arise with legal translation is what happens when a word, phrase, or sentence is mistranslated.

In legal translation, a comma or hyphen may impact the overall flow of the already-complex legalese sentences.

A badly-phrased or mistranslated word can result in a loophole that may result in fines, breach of contract, or a lawsuit.

How to translate legal documents: 6 tips to follow

Now that you know the challenges, let’s look at some legal translation tips.

  • Prepare and update your glossary

A legal translation glossary is part of the translator’s work. It’s also important to keep updating your glossary and if possible divide it into sections or industries.

  • Have a review process

We’ve mentioned the importance of the review process in legal translation.

The reviewer needs to fact-check terminology as well as style, grammar, and phrasing, and ensure that the overall tone and message are delivered.

We highly recommend that both the translator and reviewer follow the same well-researched glossary.

  • Consider contacting a lawyer in the target language

While this option may not always be feasible as many legal documents are confidential if possible get in touch with a lawyer in the target language to ensure that some of the jargon and phrasing are correct.

  • Avoid machine translation

While some businesses rely on automation, especially computer-assisted translation (CAT) tools, you can’t use these tools when translating legal documents.

Whether you’re a translator, freelancer, or translation agency, providing professional legal translation services means the human aspect is essential to your work.

  • Keep up with changing laws

Most translators work with two language pairs. Legal translators are no exception, especially those who are focused on translating legal texts that involve laws and legislation.

It’s therefore recommended that they keep an eye on new and updated laws in both the source and target languages.

  • Set a deadline

While legal translation is hard work, it’s important that the translator sets a deadline for themselves to complete the work.


Providing professional translation services is like offering a niche service.

It comes at a cost, especially if you’re an expert in legal translation, a lawyer-turned-translator, or a translation agency with a roster of expert legal translators.

Whether you’re looking to translate a contract, a partnership agreement, or any legal document, get in touch with TranslationPartner. Our team of expert legal translators will ensure swift and accurate legal translation.