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Risks and Consequences of Mistranslating Legal Documents

Most people hold at least one legal document. And often, this legal document needs to be translated into another language for official purposes. Legal translations are in high demand because many people and organizations require them, such as individuals seeking international employment, students wanting to study abroad, people wanting to migrate and business professionals traveling overseas.

Legal translations cover many spheres, and because legal documents are used officially, there should be no mistakes in their translations. Mistranslating legal documents can be costly in many ways. It is critical to avoid mistranslations, as the legal repercussions are huge.

Types of legal documents

Legal documents consist of different types, such as the following:

  • Business contracts
  • Birth certificates
  • Marriage certificates
  • Trusts and wills
  • Financial statements
  • Employment records
  • Adoption papers
  • Case summaries
  • Legal briefs
  • Witness statements
  • Court depositions

More documents are not included in this list. In fact, there are more than a hundred types of documents that fall under the legal document category. And many of them may need legal translation over time.

Legal translation is a specialized branch of translation services. It is a high-stake, complex, and demanding work.

How much does mistranslation of legal documents really cost?

Translation errors sometimes earn viral exposure because they are funny, and at times quite harmless. However, in specialized translations, such as translations of legal and medical documents, mistranslations are unforgivable because they can lead to financial losses and loss of lives. Mistranslations of legal documents can influence people’s lives, the reputation of businesses and the international economy.

Legal translations require native speakers who are subject matter experts. They should have a solid background in law to render the translations accurately. Legal translation is demanding because the translator should be well-versed in the source and target languages’ laws.

Financial losses and obligations

It is not only inside the courtrooms that errors in legal translations can cause severe consequences. They can also lead to long-standing legal disputes between countries and companies. Mistranslations in legal documents can lead to hefty legal bills and other unnecessary costs that are unquantifiable.

It is difficult to quote an exact amount when errors in legal translation occur. However, the repercussions of having errors in the translation of legal documents can reach hundreds and thousands of dollars in different forms of losses over the years. All the stakeholders stand to face losses over the mistake – the translation company, the translation team, the legal firm that commissioned the translation, and other parties, including the legal firm’s client and the third parties to the transaction.

One thing to note is that even a minor legal mistranslation can lead to serious damages. For example, a person who wants to immigrate to another country had errors in their personal documents. This could lead to the immigration application to be denied, negating all the expenses that the person already incurred in processing the application and securing all the supporting documents. If the person had to borrow money, pawn or lease some property in the hope of having a better opportunity and capability to pay the loans quickly, these would be for naught.

In business partnerships and supply contracts, a legal translation error can change the transaction, leading to capital loss, not to mention the legal actions that can go on for a few years.

A concrete example is the Free Trade Agreement between South Korea and the European Union in 2011. There was a delay in signing the agreement because the document’s Korean version had 207 translation errors. Due to this, there was a delay in the bill’s approval by the National Assembly of South Korea.

Those errors led to losses from European and Korean companies during the months that the agreement was not in place.

Loss of reputation

Aside from the financial losses, businesses face losing their reputation due to mistranslations of legal documents. Mistakes in documentation and contract can hurt the brand image and the company’s credibility.

Partners would view the errors as a lack of professionalism, causing them to seek other potential partners. Others may find themselves facing lawsuits. This is how costly the mistranslations of legal documents can become.

In China, for example, about five percent of the Chinese and foreign companies’ disputes are due to errors in legal translation, as mentioned in a 2012 article from the The article also mentioned that while there are many translation companies around China, subject matter experts are scarce. Likewise, many organizations try to save money by hiring college students to do the translation.

Other forms of losses

Mistakes in legal translation have a snowball effect. The errors can waste hours spent by both parties on lawyers, court, penalties and other expenses. Errors can cause brands’ reputation to plummet. Clients have to look for another translation agency to request a new translation of the same document. Such situations involve losses in time and money.

Understanding the legal effects of translation errors

Many elements matter in legal translation because errors can cause various problems for the lawyers and clients. The consequences of the mistranslation of legal documents are many.

A murderer can get off on a technicality due to errors in legal translation. A simple error in the translation can cause the prosecution of a criminal to be declared a mistrial.

The legal effects of mistranslations have been going on for ages. In 1851, the Sultanate of Sulu in the Philippines and Spain signed a peace treaty. The Spaniards believed that the agreement meant that the Sultanate accepted Spain’s sovereignty. The Sultanate thought it was a peace treaty. In 1878, the Sultanate again signed a treaty with the British commercial syndicate. While the Sultanate agreed to a rental, the English version stated that it was a sale.

In July 1945, the Allies sent Japan an ultimatum, and the Japanese Prime Minister at that time sent a response with the term, ”mokatsu” meaning ”think.” However, the term has other meanings: ”ignore” and ”reject.” The translator chose the term “reject” while the prime minister was trying to save time and used the word in the context of ”think.” This error became one of the world’s most costly translation mistakes because it led to the bombing of Nagasaki and Hiroshima.

These are just a few of the many translation mistakes that had legal repercussions. Some of the mistakes can reduce the privacy of some citizens and the inadmissibility of documents in court.

What is the lesson learned here? It is critical to hire professional legal translators who have the experience and expertise in the subject.

Partner with eTS for accurate legal translations

You must work with a translation company with proven expertise in legal translations when your firm needs the service. You do not have to look far either, because you can easily reach eTranslation Services by sending an email to [email protected] or calling (800) 882-6058. Our legal subject matter experts are native speakers, living in-country and have years of experience handling legal translations for various firms in different countries. Please get in touch with us and let us discuss your requirements.

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