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Top Nine Qualities to Look for in a Legal Translator

Top Nine Qualities

When it comes to legal systems, one country’s understanding of a term or concept might differ considerably from another’s. The same goes for legal translation: local laws or regulations rarely translate to literal equivalents.

That’s why hiring a legal translator isn’t like hiring a standard translator. Just like creative content, legal content requires its own translation approach: only lawyers-turned-linguists or extremely specialized translators can solve the unique riddle of transposing a legal concept from one language to another.

How you find such specialized unicorns?

In this post, we’ll run through the non-negotiables we at RWS Alpha look for in our legal translators.

The top nine qualities of legal translators

The following are buzzwords you might see on the resumes of translators in any industry. But legal translation requires special attention to these qualities because there’s so much more at stake—your documents are sensitive and legally binding.

To that end, you’ll want a translator who is:

1. Specialized

It goes without saying that the translator should specialize in translating legal documents, but also in only one or two legal practice areas such as mergers and acquisitions or cross-border contracts. The narrower the specialization, the more intimately the translator must understand the laws of specific countries and practices. Remember, this is legal, not literal, translation.

2. Experienced

It takes time to get good at this job. Experience in relevant legal practice areas is key. The candidate should be well-versed in the legal system, the jurisdiction, the processes of certain types of cases and the terms the legal code of your target country uses (how else can they preserve the meaning of archaic terms like ‘promissory note’?).

Also look for familiarity with attorney and courtroom expectations.

3. Certified

Not all translators are able to certify documents, so that ability is a bonus. Certification to practice legal translation in Canada, for example, means that the translator took a test through an association to become authorized to certify translations as accurate—otherwise, it means taking a trip to the notary office.

Some governments also require that legal translators be sworn in in front of a judge or obtain a government-issued license, like a doctor would, before they can practice.

4. Detail-oriented

We’re not exaggerating when we say that a single mistranslated word or misplaced comma can change the entire outcome of a case. Does the translator pay strict attention to accuracy and the culturally nuanced lexicon of different languages?

As a side note: document formatting matters, too. Legal documents must be easy for all parties to understand in their native language and mirror the exact structure of the source document.

5. Resourceful

Legal translators must be proficient in using tools like legal dictionaries, but that’s not all it takes to navigate the tricky waters of legalese. Do they know where else to turn for answers to their questions? Do they have access to corpus (text analysis) software, academic articles, existing translations or online databases of legislation and case law?

6. Reliable

One of a legal translator’s most important obligations is to due dates. Missed translation deadlines can have a catastrophic ripple effect, ending with higher court fees or even denied appeals. You need solid protection from expensive errors caused by late deliveries.

7. Responsive

In legal translation, speed is paramount—not just with regards to the delivery of high-quality work, but also with communication. Legal translators must be good at keeping the lines of communication open and flexible enough to respond and adapt immediately to pressing needs.

8. Ethical

Is the candidate aware of the ethical duties and legal consequences of handling sensitive content? They should have no problem signing an NDA to keep things confidential and adhere to your working parameters: for example, to not download or save documents anywhere but the work systems provided.

9. Value-based

Here, we’re talking value in terms of pricing. As you can see, legal translators are highly qualified, which often equals expensive. But you get what you pay for. The value legal translators place on their work is a good indicator of their expertise, and it’s probably a small price to pay for fail-safe confidentiality and accuracy.

Can I get away with just some of them?

By this point, you might be wondering whether each quality (perhaps apart from certification) is really non-negotiable. Finding expert lawyer-linguists is difficult enough. But finding experts with all the above? Surely you can make exceptions for one-off projects, right?

But the way we think of it, the more of these capabilities a translator possesses, the more likely they can meet your immediate and future requirements. Even for small, one-off projects, for which it might be tempting to source any legal translator who's up to that particular task, it’s good practice in the legal industry to establish a relationship from the start with a more widely experienced partner you could work with in the future. These qualities build the foundation of the bond you’ll want to form with this crucial resource to rest assured your legal translations are in the right hands.


Now you know what to look for in a legal translator. But where to look for these qualities? Stay tuned—that’s what we’re covering in our next post in our series on hiring top legal translation resources.