Do you need to know how to translate legal documents for your business? If so, these top 10 tips are for you. Translation can be a complex and daunting prospect if you are unsure what you need. Read more to discover where to start.

Tip 1: don’t try to use Google translate!

Ok, that might not be a complete tip. If you just want to understand the general gist of a legal document, or even to decide whether it is important and therefore worth translating, then Google has some merit. However, like all machine translations, Google is wildly inaccurate, and certainly can’t be relied on for any legal purposes. Why? Well, machine translation works by comparing words and phrases with a giant database of same and similar terms, and then tries to stitch these together in the target language. It is normally very literal to the original text, but struggles with nuance and meaning. Sometimes it produces ridiculous results. A couple of years ago it was giving the Ukrainian translation of “Russia” as “Mordor” – the mythical evil kingdom from Lord of the Rings. Probably not a good idea to include this in the Russian version of your contract document.

Tip 2: think about whether translation is necessary.

This may seem obvious, but if your legal document can stay in its existing language, you are saving both time and money. One issue with bilingual documents such as contracts, is which version takes precedence? What if there is a dispute regarding possible differences in interpretation between the two languages? A single language document mitigates this risk. It is quite common in bilingual legal documents to include a clause concerning which language takes precedence in the event of a dispute. 

Tip 3: prepare your text.

If you need a translation company to quote, they will need to know some basic details. All translators price on source word count. If your document is uneditable, then this will complicate the quoting process, and also the translation should you then go ahead with the work. Ensure you can supply the best possible copy of the document, and if you are able, supply it in an editable format. With many legal documents this may not be possible, for example it may be a contract document received from another party as a PDF. It could be scanned and released by the other side in a legal dispute. Translators won’t “guess” at the intended wording. If only 10% of the document is legible, then only 10% will be translated, but the cost may be the same or more as for a fully legible document because of the extra time and effort required.

Tip 4: consider, and clearly set out the purpose of translation.

It is quite common for us to receive a legal document for quote, without the client setting out the purpose of the translation. Translation is always contextual. For example is the translation intended just to give general meaning and understanding of the source document? Is it for internal use within your organisation? Or maybe it is for court use? In the case of a patent translation, are you instructing for the patent applicant, or for someone contesting the patent?

All of these cases will result in different translation strategies. For example in the case of a legal document for court use, does the court have specific requirements? Does the translation have to be certified? Is it for use in the courts of England and Wales, or in another jurisdiction? All of these factors will affect the translation. Some countries have systems of officially approved legal translators. In Spain or France for example, a legal document would have to be translated by an officially recognised legal translator. If not, it wouldn’t be accepted by the courts or official government bodies. 

Tip 5: Find out any specific translation requirements

If your translation is for personal use, for example to understand the meaning of the legal text written in another language. Then its quite straightforward to contact a translation company, get a quote, and order the work. However, if you need the translation for a specific purpose, there may be a few things to do first. Is the document to be presented to an official body like a court, a government department, or a university? If so, do they have any specific requirements?

In the UK, most official bodies will require your translation to be done by a reputable translation company. This means that they will probably require it to be produced on headed paper, stamped and signed. Some organisations may go further than this, and also require the document to be notarised. Most translation companies will provide this service, however exact requirements vary from one organisation to another. Do ask the organisation you are presenting the document to for a list of any specific requirements.

Tip 6: what to do if you need to present a legal translation in another jurisdiction

The foregoing section was about presenting a document in the UK. However, what do you need to do to present a legal translation in another jurisdiction? The UK has no official system of approved legal translators. However many other countries do. So, for example if you need to present a UK marriage certificate to a Spanish court – Spain has an official system of approved legal translators. In this case you are likely to need to have the document translated in Spain. Do check with the consulate first. 

Tip 7: Business translations in other jurisdictions

That’s all very well for a personal document, but what about business documents such as contracts, terms of business, website terms, etc.? 

The first thing to say, is that it’s usual that the local language takes precedence. This means that if you end up in court in the country concerned, they are likely to look at the local language version of the document. It surprises me that even quite large companies don’t think through the implications of this. Imagine you are signing a multi-million pound contract – if the original document is in French, and the contract is being signed in France, its likely that French law will apply. This means that if there were a translation error, or a nuance of language in the English language translation of the document, you probably won’t be able to rely on it in court. 

Tip 8: Who provides the translation?

Another point to consider with business contract translations is who provides the translation. If you are in a contract negotiation, and the “other side” provides the translation, can you rely on it? What the other party may not explain to you is any nuances or ambiguities of the translation. However, if you commission your own translation, you should expect your chosen translators, to raise these types of issues.

Tip 9: selecting a supplier

Like all translation, legal translation is often price sensitive. With a long legal text, a lower per word rate can significantly impact on overall cost. However, don’t make the mistake of treating translation as a commodity, where all suppliers are equal. Translation can be too cheap. For example some companies use machine translation and then post edit. This is normally significantly cheaper than human translation. However, legal documents have complex nuances that should never be entrusted to a machine. The text needs careful handling by a professional legal translator, with independent checking. If you think about it, your lawyers may well have spent lots of time considering individual words and phrases, you need to apply the same diligence to the translation.

Tip 10 a potential “get out of jail free”

Lovers of the game Monopoly, will understand this analergy. Even with the best translation, it is possible to have legal disputes about the wording fo the two language versions of a bilingual contract. it is quite common for lawyers to include a clause about which version is the authoritative one in the event of a dispute.  


These are a few key tips to consider when translating legal documents. These are some important general principles, but you should always seek the appropriate legal advice concerning your specific needs. As with legal advise, translation advice may vary with jurisdictions, and the type of document. We are happy to discuss your requirements and quote on legal translations.