The internet has brought us all types of hilarious and convoluted translations. However, precise, correct translations are often needed in today’s shrinking marketplace. Most challenging of all are legal translations.
Words don’t always mean what you think they mean and a small mistake in translation can lead to catastrophic consequences. Some mistakes only cost money, while others can bring devastation and change history forever. One of the most common translation errors occurred near the end of WWII. During the Potsdam Conference, the Allies demanded unconditional surrender by the Japanese. The Japanese replied with the word mokusatsu, which can mean “we are thinking about it.” The translation the Allies received was that the Japanese were ignoring the request, which finalized the Allies’ decision to bomb Hiroshima.
Another expensive and tragic mistranslation led a Spanish-speaking American patient to be treated incorrectly. The family brought a high school baseball player to the emergency room telling the doctors he was intoxicado, which in Spanish means food poisoning, but the American doctors heard a word they thought they knew — intoxicated as in alcohol or drugs. The young man was treated incorrectly and ended up as a quadriplegic. In a subsequent lawsuit, he was awarded $71 million, but this was a mistake that never should have happened.
Legal is a language in itself
Preventing mistakes like these and making sure that every legal translation is 100% accurate is not an easy job for a translator, which is the reason that legal translations are so demanding. Even though English is the international business language, this does not cover the red tape when your business moves into foreign markets. From complicated negotiations, to unclear documents to problematic contracts, these translations need to be letter-perfect with zero errors. This is why legal translation is a growing niche in the translation industry, but it is also one of the most demanding.
Legal documents must also reflect the culture. Legal translators must be capable at a high linguistic level in both the source language and the target language. They must have a good grasp of the target’s legal system, terminology and culture. In addition, legal terminologies between both languages will often be hugely different, and the translator needs to be able to compare both the legal systems and the languages.
We all know that legal documents in general are notorious for being difficult. In court, “One inaccurately translated word can change the life of a person forever,” says Victoria Froltsova, head of translation at a Vienna-based law firm. Froltsova points out that this can be especially important in criminal cases, where something as seemingly insignificant as a slightly different translation of the color of the offender’s clothes could make a difference. In business dealings, an astute legal translator can make the difference between winning and losing in a case.