Studies Reveal Why Machine Translation Fails at Legal Translations

Studies Reveal Why Machine Translation Fails at Legal Translations

It seems self-evident that legal translation would be more difficult than any other type. After all, what is the law if not the precise use of language to ensure a particular outcome?

As such, precision is key (which has an obvious implication for translations). 

Complicating matters further (in an attempt to achieve such precision) is technical language, terms of art, archaisms, liberal use of Latin and no little amount of French!

The Studies

One study undertaken at the University of Petra examined the ability of Google Translate to translate legal terms from English into Arabic. Original English texts were fed into Google Translate and the Arabic Output was compared with the original. 

The study examined:

  1. Polysemy (words which can possess multiple meanings such as "bright" to mean well-lit and intelligent)
  2. Homonymy (words with identical spellings but different meanings such as duck, rock, ring)
  3. Legal Couplets and Legal Adverbs
  4. Modality
  5. Morphological parsing
  6. Concord & agreement

It found that Google translate came up short on the lexical level in that it failed to correctly disambiguate between terms in a legal context. On a syntactic level, it came up short in that it translated words into different parts of speech. 

Another Study, this time undertaken in China, expands on this thesis by exploring why legal translation is so difficult. It found that automated machine translation suffers under the influence of ordinary language, the lack of reliable legal reference tools, their inherent insufficiency of legal knowledge, an inability to counter deficiencies in the target language or source language, and, most importantly of all, the peculiar characteristics of legal language.

This study found that most errors are lexical - that is to say the incorrect translation of specific words. For the most part, non-legal terms were substituted for words which have a specific legal meaning. There were also linguistic errors such as mistaking "latter" for "last".

A further similar example is an online dictionary carrying several synonyms for the legal concept of manslaughter - Yahoo's dictionary provides killing, homicide, murder & assassination as equivalent terms which may be fine for the layperson but clearly these fall short of the precision required in a legal context.

In their conclusion, the authors of this study emphasis the importance of using expert legal translation:

"We believe it is necessary for translators to enhance their language proficiency to stay away from errors such as using inappropriate lexicons or wrong tenses. They also need to get acquainted with legal style of writing in order to convince their clients that they are competent enough. And most of all, they have to enhance their legal knowledge. At least they should know to what specific field of law the document they are dealing with belongs. Thus, they will be able to know where to look up for the target term.

IMD Translation

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