Essential guide to legal translations

Essential guide to legal translation for lawyers, solicitors and notaries

Essential guide to legal translations

This article originally appeared in the 2015 Winter edition (Issue No. 72) of The Notary, the magazine of the Notaries Society.

What’s in a word?

On 28th July 1945, the media asked the Japanese Premier Kantaro Suzuki for his response to the Allied ultimatum. He replied, “mokusatsu” (黙殺). Within ten days, the United States had dropped the first atomic bomb on Hiroshima.

Some people think the decision to attack was a direct result of the way the Premier’s words were understood in English. Suzuki’s reply was translated as “treating with silent contempt”, even though he could equally just have been using the typical politician’s answer of “no comment”.[1]

Whether or not this inauspicious translation was responsible for the deployment of the A-bomb, we’ll never know. What is clear – foreign language documents and their translations must be handled with care.

Accurate legal translations are vital

Thankfully, most notaries don’t have to worry about the threat of triggering a nuclear war. Still, in a legal context, linguistic discrepancies in contracts drafted in multiple languages can have very serious consequences.

In 1878, the Sultan of Sulu entered into an agreement with the British relating to the islands of North Borneo. The deed was drafted in English and Sulu. One version stated the lands were to be sold, the other that they were simply to be leased. The discrepancy had lasting ramifications. It was cited as recently as October 2001 in a case before the International Court of Justice relating to competing claims by Indonesia and Malaysia for sovereignty over islands in the region.[2]

From a legal point of view, a disputed claim for sovereignty over a territory is not dissimilar from title to a property. So, it isn’t hard to imagine the kinds of problems that a poorly translated power of attorney to purchase a house abroad could cause for the notary and their client!

Regulatory requirements

Such is the potential for things to go awry, that the Notarial Practice Rules 2014 (the “NPR”) contain detailed provisions for dealing with foreign languages.

The NPR stipulate that, generally, all notarial acts should be drawn up in English (r. 12.1 NPR). In practice, though, it is not uncommon for the parties to request a notarial certificate in a foreign language. This is permissible under the rules, provided the notary has sufficient knowledge of the language concerned (r. 12.2 NPR).

Equally, even if the notary chooses only to issue his or her certificate in English, the parties may still be signing a document that is written in a foreign language. In these cases, the notary is obliged to satisfy himself or herself as to the meaning of the document prior to authentication, unless only attesting the signature or execution of the document (r. 12.3 NPR).

Leave legal translations to the professionals

Having realised how many problems can be caused by poor translations, it is important to remember that translation is an art, not a science.

So, legal translations in particular are best left to a professional. Amateurs and machines like Google Translate can be helpful for getting a rough idea of what a document says, but they cannot be relied upon. In fact, they’ll often leave you chuckling, as the following examples demonstrate!

“Drop your trousers here for best results”
Sign in a Bangkok dry cleaner’s shop

“Leave your values at reception”
Notice in a Parisian hotel

“Our wines leave you nothing to hope for”
– Description on a Swiss wine list

[1] One Word, Two Lessons, NSA Technical Journal, Autumn 1968, Vol. 13(4)
[2] http://www.icj-cij.org/docket/files/102/7700.pdf

Practice tip: Certified, official and legal translations

There is no single definition of a certified translation in England and Wales. Consequently, clients are often confused about what precisely they need when it comes to getting a translation certified.

To help, here is a list of commonly used terms and a brief explanation of what is involved:

  • Official translation: A translation that is acceptable for official purposes. This usually means that the translation must be carried out by a sworn translator, in countries where these exist, or must otherwise be certified in a way acceptable in the country of destination (e.g. certified by a notary in the case of many countries).
  • Certified translation: This is the most common type of official translation in the UK. The translation company will issue a certificate of accuracy, which should contain their name, address, date and signature, along with a statement confirming the translation to be a faithful rendering of the original source text.
  • Sworn translation: A translation produced and certified by a sworn translator, i.e. a translator appointed by a government authority in a country that has a system of officially appointed translators. In the UK or other Commonwealth countries, which do not have such a system, it generally refers to a declaration given by the translator under oath.
  • Notarised translation: As the name suggests, this is a translation certified by a notary public.It can also be used to refer to a certified translation where the signature on the translation certificate has been notarised.