This website uses cookies

This website uses cookies to ensure you get the best experience. By using our website, you agree to our Privacy Policy

James Halstead

General Manager, IMD Legal Translation and Interpreting

Quotation Marks
The nuances are neglected.

Lost in translation – the top five mistakes

Lost in translation – the top five mistakes


James Halstead examines the pitfalls of handling cross-border legal matters when multiple languages are involved.

Law firms today are increasingly interacting with a broader range of clients across the world. Of course, technology means the world is a smaller place too, and tools such as video calling and Google Translate mean that communication is easier and faster than ever before.

However, in our experience, this has created problems for lawyers who jump into a matter  without properly considering the nuances and distinctions which can make translation, especially related to law, a careful and tricky business. As legal translation specialists, these are the top five mistakes we regularly see:

1.       The nuances are neglected. We’ve seen this time and time again: when Amazon launched in Sweden it was the victim of some disastrous automatic translation taken from listings on other European versions of the site. Mistakes ranged from  nonsensical,  torude and lewd. Mistakes like this can cause reputational damage – and huge legal headaches. For instance, one company selling a product in a new jurisdiction had translated the ingredients list. Cocoa powder was on the label – except it was mistranslated into a version of cocoa powder that was not an approved ingredient in that particular jurisdiction. Although it wasn’t technically incorrect in terms of understandability, it wasn’t on the Agricultural Ministry’s approved list. Just one word can have huge legal and financial implications. You can’t rely on machine translation to get the nuances right. Local knowledge and input is often required.

2.       A language isn’t global. Often, a legal team will assume Castilian Spanish can be used and treated the same if they’re dealing with any Spanish-speaking country such as Mexico or Chile. However, the languages can have very specific regional variations which means a straight translation simply doesn’t work. Equally, legal systems are also different and this can also have an impact on the language used. Simply translating a document line-by-line rarely works. Instead, it requires a more bespoke and strategic approach.

3.       Forgetting about data laws. Much has been written recently about the transformative power of language-based artificial intelligence tools such as ChatGPT. As such, many legal teams are in the process of exploring their potential. However, using a tool such as ChatGPT or Google Translate for legal work can inadvertently cause a confidentiality or GDPR breach. ,Lawyers need to be incredibly careful about using these tools for any translation work, given the risk of exposing sensitive client information (not to mention the risk of the translation inaccuracy).

4.       Mistaking translation and interpretation If a matter involves more than one language, the chances are, it will require translation (written), interpretation (spoken), and transcription (spoken to written). Therefore, it’s essential you have the support of a linguist (be it a translator, interpreter, or transcriptionist) who understands not only the subtle nuances in language, but in culture too. Equally, an interpreter with specific legal knowledge of the jurisdictions involved is essential as this means nothing important is lost when interpreting complex legal terms.

5.       Forgetting about sworn translation. Sworn translation doesn't exist in the UK. However, some other jurisdictions, such as Italy, Spain, Poland and the Netherlands, require translations to be performed by a ‘sworn translator’. The exact definition and process of what this is varies slightly depending on the jurisdiction. However, the linguist who performs the translation is often required to be registered with a particular court or government ministry, and must swear in front of the local court or notary public to the authenticity and accuracy of their translation. Specialists are able to facilitate sworn translation for use in most jurisdictions, but this is an important factor to be aware of when dealing with certain countries.

Finally: accurate translation is very important, but so is revision and ensuring there is a second pair of eyes on any translated work. The consequences of inaccurate legal translation can be severe, including financial penalties, legal disputes, and even criminal charges. Therefore, working with a certified legal language service provider with the necessary knowledge, training and expertise is essential to ensure accurate and reliable legal translations.

James Halstead is general manager at IMD Legal Translation & Interpreting Ltd.