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What is Meant by Legal Translation?

Translations of legal documents are required for many different reasons relating to judicial or administrative proceedings. Often the translation must be accompanied by a sworn affidavit, certified by foreign authorities so as to be considered valid in the procedure for which it is required. A simple example is a birth certificate, which, if not in English, might require a certified translation to accompany it in some immigration process in South Africa. A more complex example would be an international service contract between two large companies. Usually such contracts recite which language version is controlling, but it is always important to have as faithful a translation as possible into the other language.

Why is Legal Translation Difficult?

The essential difficulty of legal terminology is that it is the product of a specific legal system. In the context of a different legal system, the word not only has little or no meaning. For example, the phrase, “revocable trust” in English is hard to translate into other languages because the concept of “revocable trust” is native to Western legal systems and may not exit in other legal systems. This requires of the translator a thorough understanding of the underlying legal concepts. Thus, the legal translator has to have mastery of both legal systems as well as of the two languages.

Security and Confidentiality is an Issue

SLS maintains strict and enforceable confidentiality commitments with all its translators so as to protect a client’s privileged documents. (Virtually all countries recognize that delivery of documents for translation does not damage attorney-client privilege). Additionally, SLS works with only fully certified and accredited translators. Fortunately, SLS translations has accumulated over the years good working relationships with knowledgeable legal translators in several fields, involving most of the common language pairings. This permits clients to receive both quotes and finished product quickly.

Legal Translation Objectives

The objective for legal documents for judicial or administrative proceedings is to generate a translation that will have the same effect in the target legal system as the original document had in its own. Sometimes this requires additional documentation, like certificates (or affidavits) of accuracy. The objective for legal documents in the private context (wills, contracts, etc.) is to convey a clear understanding of what the source document is saying, in unambiguous prose. Sometimes this requires a quite literal translation, with occasional notes to explain how a term might have more than one meaning in context. If the original is itself ambiguous or unclear, the effort is to make the translation without imposing any additional clarity, that is, to allow the ambiguity to transfer into the target language.

Examples of Legal Translations:


  • Statutes
  • Judgments & Decrees
  • Evidentiary Documents
  • Summons & Pleadings


  • Regulations
  • Rulings & Decisions
  • Reports & Technical Submissions
  • Certificates of Birth, Death, Marriage


  • Contracts
  • Wills & Testaments
  • Trusts
  • Financial Documents
  • Insurance Records