The Difference Between a Legal Interpreter and a Legal Translator

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In the legal world, strong communication is vital to the functioning of institutions and the protection of individual rights. Legal interpretation services and legal translation services both play an important role when attorneys and courts need to communicate with non-native English speakers.

However, legal professionals sometimes confuse the need for a legal interpreter with the need for a legal translator. To ensure that you receive the language services you need, let’s clarify the differences between the two.

Similarities Between Legal Interpreters and Legal Translators

Before we get to the significant differences between these language services, consider some  similarities. Both services require highly specialized subject matter experts. This is because legal communication, whether spoken or written, involves a lot of technical language and jargon.

Without a deep understanding of the law, legal texts can look like alphabet soup. So, not just any translator will do for legal translations. Legal translators must be trained in legal contexts and common conflicting meanings in translator law as well as in relevant cultural differences.

Serious consequences can result from mistranslations in legal, financial, and political contexts. For example, some have gone so far as to suggest that the U.S. dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima, Japan because of a translation error. In July 1945, the Allied Powers sent a declaration of surrender terms to Japan and awaited reply. The terms stated that any negative response would result in “prompt and utter destruction.”

 Japanese media questioned Premier Kantaro Suzuki before he had made a formal decision about how to reply. When Suzuki spoke to reporters, he used the word “mokusatsu,” to say he was withholding comment. However, translators told U.S. officials he meant that the terms were “not worthy of comment”—a response tantamont to ignoring the terms. Within 10 days, Truman ordered the atomic bomb to be dropped on Hiroshima.

 As you might infer from this example, it helps to have an expert with experience in a particular area of the law, such as service agreements and contracts, regulatory and compliance documents, patents, subpoenas, briefs, depositions, etc. to translate particular types of legal documents.

For legal linguists specializing in legal interpretation, this technical need is even more pronounced. The ability to understand and translate legal-speak in the moment is one of the most challenging tasks a language professional could face. Our on-demand phone interpretation services connect you with the experts you need when you need them.

Differences Between Legal Interpreters and Legal Translators

Having discussed the similarities, let’s turn to the differences now. Educating yourself about the differences can save you a lot of unnecessary headaches when it comes to adjudicating international cases. Whether you need legal interpretation or legal translation primarily depends on your need for spoken or written services, but the two skills are actually quite different.

Legal interpretation

How does it work? A legal interpreter translates words spoken by English-speaking legal professionals into another language during depositions, in court, over the phone, in video conferences, and during interviews. Interpretation can be either simultaneous, as you might see during United Nations meetings where participants wear headsets, or consecutive, like you might see in a courtroom where a foreign witness pauses her testimony to allow an interpreter to repeat their words in the local language.

What special skills do legal interpreters need? As with all interpreters, legal interpreters must be quick thinkers. They must be comfortable operating during potentially heated discussions on-the-fly. The translation from one language to the other must be instantaneous or near instantaneous. Interpreters must also be strategic and critical thinkers who can make judgment calls about the best words to convey the speaker’s meaning quickly. Crucially, legal interpreters must be aware of the legal implications of certain word choices. The skilled linguist’s job in interpreting is not unlike a professional athlete’s or a circus performer on a high-wire.

Legal translation

How does it work? A legal translator works with written legal documents; for example, contracts, briefs, patents, medical documents, and other court documents. While an interpreter’s job is all about speed and accuracy, a translator’s job is all about depth and accuracy. To do this well, translators typically take more time than legal interpreters, though the time constraints vary by project and document, of course.

What special skills do legal translators need? Pouring over legal documents requires a linguist who is especially attuned to subtleties and details in documents. Translators must be able to uncover hidden meanings in language and cultural differences. They must identify nuances that can help their legal partners move a case forward more quickly. Where the interpreter resembles an acrobat in her work, the translator is closer to a persistent, wise detective.

The Expert You Need

As in most professional situations, in legal situations, a team effort is more likely to yield success when individuals are matched with the roles for which they are best suited. When assembling a legal team to shepherd a dispute to a favorable conclusion, this is especially true. Putting resources into finding the right experts is never wasted effort.

 Legal experts should never forget how even a single mistranslated word can bring down an entire case. In Motion Fitness vs. Changzhou Yingcai Metalwork Fitness Equipment, a 2014 patent infringement dispute, for instance, this is precisely what happened. The case went all the way to the Supreme People’s Court of China. In the patent, the indefinite article, ‘a’ was translated in each instance in the Chinese version to ‘one’, a specific numerical value. This mistranslation narrowed the scope of protection in the claims and wound up fatally undermining the plaintiff’s case.

Can you afford not to hire an expert legal interpreter or translator to support you on your next global legal case?

Finding the right legal language expert on your own takes a delicate combination of time and a lot of luck. DTS Language Services, Inc. knows that as a busy legal professional, your time is precious. We also know how important it is for your legal documents to be translated and interpreted accurately. Let our experts connect you with the legal interpretation services that are best for you. Call us at 800-524-0722 or 919-582-0330 or request your free document translation quote today!