There’s no room for error when it comes to legal translation

Legal translation by t'works

Access to a legal interpreter or legal translation services aren’t things we think about until we really need them. It won’t be until you’re in life-altering situations – immigrating to a new country or falling foul of the law in a country whose language you don’t speak – that you will fully realize the importance of being understood in a language that isn’t your own.

Understanding both the nuances of law and the correct terminology in two languages and two countries isn’t an easy ask and only highly trained translators and interpreters should attempt to navigate this field. The consequences of not getting this type of cross-language communication correct are potentially disastrous.

When legal translation goes wrong

When translating or interpreting in a legal context goes wrong it can hit the headlines.

Damages were awarded to the English-speaking defendant in a globally reported murder trial in Italy when it was understood that they had not received sufficient access to a qualified interpreter during their initial questioning. In the UK a blackmail trial collapsed when it was discovered that the interpreter had not been able to translate the police caution in full and had not been accurately reproducing police questions for the defendant.

The competence of the interpreter can mean the difference between a guilty verdict or a life of freedom. Research has shown that only slight variations in how words and phrases are interpreted can cause prejudice to people being interviewed by police. Inadvertent mistranslations may cause a person to unknowingly confess to a crime. Academic expert Luna Filipović has extensively researched this issue and suggests that it isn’t sufficient to simply provide an interpreter during police interviews, the interpreter must be highly skilled and able to cope with the pressurized and stressful circumstances of these types of events.

Fortunately, miscarriages of justice are rare and finding yourself in police questioning isn’t something most of us will experience. However, having difficulty accessing a professional interpreter, despite a growing awareness of its importance, is not unusual.

The lack of a qualified interpreter in legal proceedings often leads to unplanned-for delays and unnecessary added costs. The Guardian in 2016 reported that more than 2,500 cases in the UK had been adjourned or adversely affected by the lack of professional interpreters in the five previous years.

Globalization and rising migration around the world mean that skilled legal interpreters are in high demand. With increasing recognition for indigenous languages and the fact that access to a legal interpreter in your natural language is a basic human right, the diversity of languages used in legal settings continues to grow.

Recognizing the role of legal interpreters

There’s no escaping the crucial role interpreters play in court and other areas of the law. These are critical scenarios that demand the highest levels of education, linguistic ability and sangfroid. Interpreters are expected to remain calm and unmoved, deliver precise language transfer as per the original intent, and never be stumped by terminology or subject matter. It is in short, a difficult job and one that is often undervalued.

Court and legal interpreters may well be required to appear unperturbed by what they hear and translate but in practice, remaining unaffected by events that are revealed in the course of legal proceedings can be challenging.

Studies have shown that interpreters can suffer forms of vicarious trauma as a result of the disturbing scenarios they encounter. The effects are amplified by the intense nature of the interpreter’s role which demands they use the first person singular or plural pronoun and step, momentarily at least, into the shoes of the person they’re translating.

Efforts are being made to improve working conditions for interpreters and to highlight the potential dangers to their health that their role can encompass, but there’s no denying that this type of language service will always carry risks. Perhaps it’s time we all gave better recognition to the exceptional work legal interpreters do.

Legal document translation for a world on the move

Although the need to engage a legal interpreter might feel like something we may never have to do, getting legal documents translated and certified is a common undertaking and it is likely you or your organization will at some point in time require the services of an expert legal translator.

National borders no longer deter companies from trading in new markets or people from travelling, living or working in new countries and regions. The world is on the move and the demand for translating documents like certificates, permits and contracts has never been greater.

At a business level the types of legal paperwork that may need translating are varied. Contracts and agreements, test and expert reports, land transfer deeds and real estate documents, privacy policies and terms of use can all be required in multilingual formats. [Look out for our blog on the translation of contracts and patents in international business over on our website].

Personal legal documents like passports, birth and marriage certificates, employment contracts, references, bank statements, wills, powers of attorney or police checks could all necessitate translation when you begin work in or move to a new country.

Again, not getting it right can cause delays, upset and even refusal in the cases of immigration or visa applications. Erroneous translation or translations that are not correctly certified can cause major disruption to people’s lives.

Early in 2023 the CIC news website in Canada reported on the case of Turkish citizen Hasan Gorgulu, who made an application for a pre-removal assessment (when the person in question believes they will be at risk of harm if returned to their home country) to Canadian authorities and submitted documents translated from Turkish into English. His application was initially rejected because of the failure to produce officially certified translated documents and put his asylum case at risk. In another example in 2022 it was reported that Ukrainian refugees were refused entry to Israel because of a translation blunder in the official paperwork causing a question on the entry form to be misunderstood.

It’s not difficult to see why accurate and properly formulated legal translation really matters. When the stakes are high only professional, highly skilled and certified translators can get the job done.

AI is no replacement for human expertise

Of course, no language-related blog these days can be written without reference to artificial intelligence and its growing effect on the world of human communication. AI is undoubtedly making progress in its quest to understand and reproduce our languages but it still has significant flaws. Machines often struggle to pick up the nuances of language and they rely on the data they’re given to be able to make sense of the ever-evolving patterns and lexicons of our words and phrases. For uncomplicated, low risk translation they offer a good option. For translations like those we have discussed here that can have life-changing implications, AI translation systems should be used with extreme caution and only under trained human supervision.

Recently (in September 2023) the British newspaper The Guardian ran an article about the effects of using artificial intelligence for translation in the US immigration system. They looked at the harmful effects of using AI-powered voice translation tools that fail to understand regional accents and dialects and the distress the language barrier causes for people seeking asylum in the USA. It’s clear from this evidence that overreliance on AI can have a detrimental effect on people’s chances of securing safe haven in the US.

Machine translation also falls short when the languages needed are what are known as ‘low resource’ languages, or languages that have little online or digital presence. This means there isn’t enough data for AI models to learn from, leading to gaps in their ability to process these languages. Website Rest of World reported in April this year (2023) that automatic translation of the Afghan languages Pashto and Dari was poor and causing rejected asylum claims for Afghan refugees.

Regulation is beginning to help with the problems mentioned above but is still in its early stages and will undoubtedly need to be adapted as generative AI gallops on. The new EU AI Act makes it an obligation for users to assess the risks of using AI and includes as high risk areas ‘migration, asylum and border control management’ and ‘assistance in legal interpretation and application of the law’. Globally governments are considering how best to tackle the AI issue and even developers themselves are introducing codes of use, OpenAI being a leading example.

Trust the experts

All these instances clearly show that there’s no replacement for experienced human professionals when it comes to legal translation. In circumstances where a grammar slip or an inappropriate word can mean the difference between a successful outcome or a heart-wrenching rejection, working with specialized and expert linguists is common sense.

t’works has decades of experience in legal translating and interpreting. We have developed an ecosystem that enables us to deliver outstanding translation quality and consistent cost efficiency. Our team includes dedicated project managers, subject matter experts and in-house native specialist legal linguists who work together to produce multilingual legal content you can trust.

To find out more, contact us here.

Your personal contact

Marie-Laure Vinckx

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