Language and Jurisdiction: The Nuances of Legal Translation

As a legal practitioner, hiring a translator or interpreter can feel like a risky business. Will they understand the nuances of the subject matter? Will they capture the legal meaning of the words or translate them into their ‘ordinary’ meaning? When you start to think about the complexities around legal concepts and terminology used in…

As a legal practitioner, hiring a translator or interpreter can feel like a risky business. Will they understand the nuances of the subject matter? Will they capture the legal meaning of the words or translate them into their ‘ordinary’ meaning?

When you start to think about the complexities around legal concepts and terminology used in different jurisdictions and countries, it’s easy to see why legal practitioners approach translators and interpreters with caution.

You need a bilingual interpreter with a law background but won’t charge the hourly rate of foreign legal counsel. A good interpreter or translator can be invaluable for multilingual cross-border negotiations or translating high volumes of foreign language documentation.


Legal Terminology Translation Pitfalls

The legal landscape is peppered with words that can be misconstrued for their ‘everyday’ meaning if the translator or interpreter doesn’t completely understand their legal significance.

For example, it may not be clear to a non-attorney that a ‘motion’ in U.S. proceedings is a request by a litigant to a judge for a decision on an issue relating to the case. While it’s an everyday lexicon to U.S. litigators, a translator may confuse it with simply ‘the process of moving forward’ or ‘a command by gesticulating.’

Similarly, important concepts like ‘privilege’ can be misunderstood between jurisdictions. Privilege is recognized as a technical reason to withhold the inspection of documents from the opposing side or the court in the U.S. and the UK. But the concept is not recognized in France, Germany, and Sweden. Those jurisdictions have their own ways of protecting client confidentiality and litigation privacy. Still, the translator will need to know the legal concepts and the linguistic definitions to provide an accurate translation.

One final example of a surprising discrepancy is the application of ‘without prejudice’. In the UK, it protects the privacy of communications that are intended to settle a dispute. In the U.S., dismissal ‘without prejudice’ is a dismissal that allows for the re-filing of the case in the future. English and American attorneys are likely to find some confusion in their different applications of the phrase.

Here are some concepts that are commonly used in legal spheres but have different meanings across jurisdictions:


Legal privilege for in-house attorneys is a concept recognized in the U.S. and UK, but not in France, Germany, and Sweden for example.


Often misunderstood between counties. For example, in the UK it is a common law concept to determine which legal system applies to an individual.

It’s particularly important to determine an individual’s liability to income tax, capital gains tax, and inheritance tax.

But in European countries (specifically Spain and France) the same word generally means one’s home address.

Plead the fifth

The right to remain silent is a fundamental right of the U.S. constitution, but there’s no direct translation into foreign languages.


A French civil enforcement measure, which Google translates as “garnishment” in English. In practice, it’s an attachment of earnings.

Matrimonial property regime

The concept is not generally recognized in UK law but is vitally important in most other jurisdictions. It’s a mechanism through which married couples choose how they will own assets together.


Translation of Words with Multiple Meanings

Simple words like ‘discovery’ take on a new meaning in the legal world. And a concept like ‘pleading the fifth’ is only recognizable as a right to remain silent in the U.S. Finding the words to translate the legal meaning behind these words and phrases is a challenge for any translator or interpreter.

“One of the problems that I have noted when translators are confronted with legal terms, is that they are unable to provide a correct translation because the word in question has another more common meaning that is completely different from the meaning in the legal sense,” comments legal translator Laura Hastings-Brownstein.

“I have frequently seen translations from linguists who are not familiar with the meaning of a legal term itself and they will translate the word using the common meaning, which renders an incorrect translation. For example, the word “motion” means movement in the common sense, but in the legal context, it means a request by a litigant to a judge.”


Interpreting Cross-Border Negotiations

A good interpreter can make all the difference in cross-border negotiations, including M&A (mergers and acquisitions) deals.

In the first instance, it’s crucial to have a holistic understanding of the words used. Contracts are going to include highly technical language, both in legal terms and in the concepts that are particular to that industry. For example, the meaning of ‘consideration’ as ‘payment’ is crucial to the contract and can’t be mistaken for ‘careful thought’. The interpreter needs to know how to explain these concepts to the client, in a way that captures their legal weight.

In addition to that, the interpreter must be aware of local colloquialisms and idioms. They need to know that a ‘red flag’ is a metaphor for concern so that they can raise the issue with appropriate gravitas with the client. Interpreting it literally will cause confusion or a lack of understanding about the dynamic in the negotiation.

Even more subtle than the changing meaning of words in a negotiation is the tone of the conversation. Often, when you don’t speak the same language as the other side, the tone of the negotiations can be lost. For example, if one party is becoming frustrated, agitated, and close to walking away, that feeling doesn’t necessarily translate through a language barrier. A bilingual interpreter can help to read the room and suggest when a break may be due.


Consistency, Compliance, and Certifications

When working with a legal translation services provider, there are a few more points of good practice that you can look out for: terminology consistency, confidentiality of content, and compliance.

ISO Certifications

Look out for specific accreditations and certifications to validate the compliance of your translation provider. Check that they have the ISO 9001:2015 certification in Quality Management System, demonstrating that the staff has training on data standards.

The ISO/IEC 27001:2013 accreditation shows that they comply with Security TecMayhniques. And ISO/IEC 27701:2019 certifies the company for Privacy Information Management. Achieving this standard indicates that the provider has systems in place to keep your data private and secure.


Most translation companies are data processors and will fall under the scope of data protection regulations if they process the personal data of UK, EU/EEA, or USA citizens. That means that they will have specific processes in place to avoid any data breaches and enforce confidentiality throughout the course of your matter. Processes like:

Consistent Legal Terminology

Due to the complex terminology included within legal translations, it is important that your legal translation provider adheres to processes that document and input accurate terminologies, such as dedicated glossaries and translation memories, in order to maintain uniformity in terminology across the various legal documents.

Avoid potential pitfalls by giving interpreters and translators a thorough brief, which includes some of the issues highlighted here. It’s not always easy to spot the words and concepts that won’t translate directly. Still, if you provide the context and explain typical legal concepts in your jurisdiction, your interpreter is at least on guard to spot local phrases and colloquialisms. A glossary is particularly helpful in these circumstances.


Contact Welocalize today to get started on your next legal translation project.