Translating Legal Documents: Best Practices

Legal document translation

The American legal system might officially operate in English, but it serves a multilingual and multicultural public. Every year more than 135,000 court proceedings require interpreting into more than 10 languages.1

But it’s not just court proceedings that require translation; contracts, messages entered as evidence, scholarly works, and more legal materials often require these services. And it’s crucial the translations are accurate, speedy, and as affordable as possible. Having a professional translator is crucial in ensuring accurate communication within the legal system. Whether it’s translating an official document or deciphering complex legal jargon, a certified translator plays a vital role in preserving the integrity of the original document.

With that in mind, here’s everything you need to know about how to translate legal documents—including what types of documents might need translating, how to ensure accuracy in your translations, and step-by-step instructions on how to choose the right translation service. 

Introduction to Legal Document Translation

There are many instances where translating legal documents becomes essential. From contracts to immigration papers, document translation is necessary for many different legal situations, both inside and outside of courtrooms and legal proceedings. Whatever the purpose, it’s essential that legal documents are translated as accurately as possible, and on an appropriate budget and timeline. So, why is legal translation important, exactly?

Proper legal document translation matters because legal systems are complex, and the implications regarding legal documents are often weighty. Due to their importance, legal documents need to be translated by a professional translator to maintain the integrity of the documents. 

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Types of Legal Documents That Require Translation

What types of legal documents might require translation? Some common types of legal translation include:

  • Contracts
  • Financial statements
  • Real estate documents
  • Prenuptial agreements
  • Immigration paperwork
  • Birth and death certificates
  • Last will and testaments
  • Intellectual property rights
  • Regulatory requirements
  • Private messages or communications entered as evidence

This list is not exhaustive, and legal translations can be required for a wide range of other materials.

But the key takeaway here? If a legal document needs to be used in a different language than the one it was authored in, accurate translations that preserve the original’s intent become essential. At best, mistranslations lead to higher costs and delays. But at worst, an inaccurate document could carry significant legal, financial, or other repercussions. Ultimately, translations need to be authentic to the original document.

When a missing Oxford comma in a contract costs a Maine Dairy company $5 million, the stakes for the exact words on a page can get pretty high.2 And in this example, the document was written in English, so just imagine all of the additional complications that translation introduces.

The point is this: If you aren’t someone who knows how to translate legal documents, you’ll need to partner with someone who does.

Contracts and Agreements

Businesses and individuals often deal with international partners or multilingual documents, necessitating accurate translation of contracts, non-disclosure agreements (NDAs), and terms of service. This can be for a variety of reasons, including to ensure all parties understand their rights and obligations. These translations often need to capture specific legal terminology and meaning. 

Court and Legal Filings

The legal system generates a vast amount of paperwork, including motions, briefs, judgments, and witness testimonies. Accurate translation of these documents can become important in many scenarios, including for international litigation, depositions, and legal proceedings involving foreign parties. Nuances in legal procedure and standards can vary by jurisdiction, making a deep understanding of documents crucial for all parties involved.

How to Translate Legal Documents

While there are different methods for translating legal documents, using a legal document translation service can provide you with a fast, accurate, and affordable solution. If you’re wondering how to translate legal documents, here are steps to follow.

First, choose a trusted translation service that can handle the types of legal documents you need translated. 

Then, determine if you want a human translator or a machine translation (leveraging the power of artificial intelligence to expedite document translations). How do you know which option best meets your needs? AI-based translation is often relied upon when there are mass volumes of documents (especially during a case’s discovery phase). For high volumes, machine translation can often be more cost-effective. 

In other cases, human translation is more appropriate. For example, when the highest level of accuracy is required, a real person is always the best option. Human translation also better handles dialects, nuances of languages, and legal terminology compared to literal AI translations. 

During this process, you can also determine if your legal translation needs to be certified. Keep in mind that if you plan to use the translation in court or for other legal scenarios (such as immigration and citizenship, or contract law) it will need to be certified. 

Key Challenges in Translating Legal Documents

Translating legal documents is a complex task that goes beyond simply converting words from one language to another. Here are some of the notable challenges that can arise during the process: 

  • Nuances of legal language – Legal language is known for its complexity, precision, and formality. To that end, translations must navigate unique sentence structures, strict vocabulary, and distinct legal meanings.
  • Cultural considerations When translating documents, it’s important to consider cultural context, concepts, and considerations. Regional dialects and word choices can complicate matters further. An accurate translation takes cultural and linguistic nuances into account and ensures the translated documents maintain legal accuracy.
  • Disparate legal systems – Different countries have different legal systems with unique concepts, terminology, and procedures. When a legal document requires translation, it needs to maintain its same legal meaning and intent.

Language Specifics and Legal Terminology

Keep in mind that each language has its own specifications, and can pose challenges with legal terminology. For example, some legal concepts might not have a direct translation in the target language. Translation services need to be resourceful and knowledgeable to convey the intended meaning accurately.

Ultimately, a skilled legal translator understands linguistic nuances, and they ensure the translation aligns with the target legal framework. 

However, not all language services offer notarized translations suitable for legal matters. It’s essential to seek out certified translation services specifically tailored for legal text to guarantee accuracy and compliance with your law firm’s requirements.

Cultural and Jurisdictional Differences

Law isn’t just about words: it’s also about cultural context. Legal concepts might be interpreted differently in different cultures, and some common expectations and understandings may not carry over. It’s necessary for a skilled translation service to understand cultural nuances and jurisdictional differences.

The Importance of Accuracy in Legal Translation

When it comes to the law, precision is of the utmost importance. Every word, clause, and phrase within a legal document carries incredible weight. Each sentence shapes rights, responsibilities, and even potential consequences. This is why accuracy is not just desirable, but essential. One single misstep in translation can have a domino effect, leading to potential misunderstandings, misinterpretations, misfilings, and all the associated legal consequences. 

Here are a few of the reasons why flawless accuracy is critical in legal translations:

  • Document integrity – Legal documents establish binding agreements, record vital proceedings, and serve as the foundation for upholding the law. An inaccurate translation can compromise this integrity. 
  • Protecting rights – Contracts, wills, and other legal documents define the rights and obligations of involved parties, which can become incorrect, muddied, or obscured following inaccurate translations.
  • Preventing consequences – Misunderstandings that arise from inaccurate translations can lead to unintended consequences, such as increased financial obligations (to correct the mistake) or even legal battles.
  • Ensuring timeliness – Mistranslations could cause businesses and legal professionals to miss crucial deadlines. Whether that affects a case or delays a company’s entry into a foreign market, the setbacks and incurred costs add up quickly.

Choosing the Right Legal Translation Service

The legal translation services market is expected to grow 2.3% CAGR, meaning that more and more legal translation services are coming into play.3 But if you’re looking for the right partner that meets your needs, here are some tips to keep in mind:

  • Consider your basic requirements – First, check whether they meet the basics. Does the service you’re considering excel at translating legal documents? What is their turnaround time on documents, and are they able to handle the types of documents you want to have translated? While some documents might be standard (such as contracts), others might be more specialized (such as text message transcripts).
  • Determine if they can certify a translation – Certain translations require certification. If your document does, be sure the service you select can certify it.
  • Decide between human or AI – Services today often offer the choice between human translation or AI translation. Be sure the service you’re selecting has the translation method that’s best for you. For example, if you have a high volume of documents, AI (backed by an expert’s validation) is probably a better decision.
  • Ensure they can accommodate your language – It’s important that your translation service of choice can accommodate the language you need down to regional dialects and characteristics. 

When you choose a high-quality service for translating legal documents, you don’t just get a word-for-word translation: you’re ensuring compliance and understanding in your translations. A top-tier translation service bridges the gap between different languages, taking cultural context and legal requirements into account.

U.S. Legal Support Translation Services—The Best Practice

If you’re looking for an accurate, speedy, and cost-effective legal document translation, then we have you covered. Whether you need one document translated or thousands, U.S. Legal Support delivers accurate and well-received translations. We can provide you with both certified and non-certified document translations, and we can use powerful machine translation to expedite your document translations.

Contact us today so we can help you translate your legal documents. 


  1. US Courts. Court Operations – Annual Report 2022.
  2. NY Times. Oxford Comma Dispute is Settled as Maine Drivers Get $5 Million.
  3. Verified Market Research. Global Translation Services Market Size By Type
  4. US Legal Support. Best Practices for the Translation of Official Legal Documents. 
Julie Feller
Julie Feller
Julie Feller is the Head of Marketing at U.S. Legal Support. Prior to U.S. Legal Support, Julie worked at Abacus Data Systems (now Caret Legal) providing legal technology platforms and services to legal professionals across the country.

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Content published on the U.S. Legal Support blog is reviewed by professionals in the legal and litigation support services field to help ensure accurate information.