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The hazards of careless legal translation

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What is legal translation? Legal translation is the translation of texts that fall under the field of Law. Such legal texts could be contracts which determine the rights and obligations of the parties, several documentations like credentials, testaments, articles of incorporation, witness statements, testimonies, judicial documents, immigration documents, title deeds as well as information that is safeguarded by the legal privilege. Therefore, we talk about a truly serious and complicated procedure which demands undivided attention, precision, credibility, speed, and absolute specialization in this specific field.

Trying to find the correct word or use the correct grammatical structure is, more than usually, a frustrating and agonizing experience which may make you turn to free online translation tools such as Google Translate. Google Translate is a mechanism of statistical analysis and it uses language patterns to offer a translation based on the full text. This, in theory, results in the avoidance of several problems that are related to word-to-word translation. This lack of actual language comprehension often results in errors, illegible phrases and structures, as well. Because of this, Google Translate results often need corrections so as to make sense. However, if you do not have a profound understanding of the initial language, this could cause you to stray from the actual meaning, thus, you could jeopardize accuracy.  In order to avoid this, you could try to translate single words or brief phrases instead of full texts. Nevertheless, even by using this method, Google Translate as well as other online tools are likely to fail.

However, when it comes to translating legal documents, the usage of these tools might also violate privileges since it constitutes communication exchange with an outworker. Such a translation could also end up on the web as it happened with the Norwegian oil and natural gas company named ‘Equinor’ (later named ‘Statoil’) who only found out in August 2017, when Traffic.com published company’s passwords and contracts in Google searching results.

Semantics and pragmatics are two linguistic notions which are implemented in the scientific field of translation and act together in order to seal the quality and authenticity of the final result. Besides, a significant amount of people can speak a language, but can they translate? Knowing foreign languages does not necessarily imply competency in translating. Translators hold knowledge of linguistic invariants and skills. Mixing linguistic elements with knowledge of translation techniques, results in a specialized outcome which is incomparable.

Mr. Günter Grass who was awarded with the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1999, stated that ‘translation transforms everything in order that nothing ever changes.’ He was talking about literature, however it is perfectly implemented in the context of legal translation, where the outcome of a case could totally alter due to a single word that has not been translated appropriately. This is not an exaggeration.

In Canada, a few years ago a court case of sexual assault (Vishu Sharma Dutt case) fell completely down after the total incompetency of the Hidi translator, on behalf of the defendant, became clear. She was so inefficient that the judge of the supreme court Anthony Hill was compelled to declare a mistrial which came as a direct result of the wrong translation of certain texts. In her translation,’ two weeks’ became ‘two days’, ‘afternoon’ became ‘evening’ and ‘sexual assault’ became ‘physical aggression’.

After an objection, the translation was sent to a specialized solicitor of New York who was also an expert in Hindi interpretations, Umesh Passi, who ascertained that the translator of the defense was a fluent speaker of the language but had abstracted most of the testimonies. The judge decided that the mistakes had breached the right to a fair trial of Mr. Dutt and that, in reality, he had been excluded from his own trial.

It is therefore essential that the specialized and certified translator knows that the law is indissolubly linked to civilization and that this means that linguistic structures which are socially and culturally accurate in one language, are not accurate in another language. As a consequence, the translator must hold excellent knowledge of both cultures and their law systems.

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