Methods used in the translation of legal documents

Methods used in the translation of legal documents

Historically, translation methods have always been the source of debate. Some scholars have advocated the use of more literal translation, whilst others prefer a more free approach to translation - translation in spirit rather than letter. Legal translation is, of course, a special case.

Legal language relies on precision, clarity, brevity, and clearly defined terms of reference to prevent unwanted and often potentially disastrous consequences for the lawyer and their client. 

Some of the major methods used to translate documents include literal translation, free translation, the functional approach to translation, transliteration & transcription, loan translation, adaptation, description by definitions, lexical expansion, and descriptive substitution. 

Legal language is considered a "language for a special purpose" (LSP) (Mattila 2006). This means there is a specific style to this language which is unlikely to be comprehensible to the general public. Mattila describes legal language as "an instrument for achieving justice, communicating messages of legal significance, bolstering the authority of the law and creating a shared identity among lawyers". Bhatia (1993) considers legal discourse "notorious for it's complexity, repetitiveness and tortuous syntax". There are of course a number of legal "languages", each with their own characteristics. Judicial decisions, the language of the courtroom, the wording of legal documents such as Wills, Contracts, etc and the wording of Statutes are all quite distinct to the trained eye.

From these definitions, it's easy to see how simple word-for-word translations are unlikely to be satisfactory. How, then, are legal texts translated? What methods are employed?


Not strictly a translation method, this occurs when a word is "borrowed" or "loaned" from one language by others. Shadenfreude being an example of a German "loan-word" word borrowed by English.


This is where a word or phrase is borrowed but then its elements are literally translated. Fin de Semaine from the English Weekend, for example.

Literal Translation

As the name suggests, this is literal word-for-word translation. 


This involves replacing one word with another similar word, without altering the overall meaning. 


This involves changing the perspective while adjusting the meaning. For example, in French we speak of the "last stage" of a building (dernier étage), whereas in English we speak of the "top floor".


This involves using an equivalent expression to preserve meaning. Similar to adaptation. The English phrase "dressed up to the nines" in French would often be said instead as "On one's thirty one" (être sur son trente et un).


This is perhaps the loosest translation technique, and involves the preservation of the central message, while surrounding elements are translated for the target culture.

These are just an overview of the techniques required to translate any work, legal or otherwise, and it's easy to see the complexity brought about by even the simplest documents. A legal translator must be fluent in both languages AND have a familiarity with both legal systems, as well as legal concepts generally. If you'd like to find out more about how IMD Translation can help you serve your clients better, please get in touch.