Challenges in Translating Legal Texts

Challenges in Translating Legal Texts

Legal texts refer to the texts produced or used for legal purposes in legal settings. Legal texts can be distinguished into four major variants or sub-varieties in the written form: (1) legislative texts, e.g. domestic statutes and subordinate laws, international treaties and multilingual laws, and other laws produced by lawmaking authorities; (2) judicial texts produced in the judicial process by judicial officers and other legal authorities; (3) legal scholarly texts produced by academic lawyers or legal scholars in scholarly works and commentaries whose legal status depends on the legal systems in different jurisdictions; and (4) private legal texts that include texts written by lawyers, e.g. contracts, leases, wills and litigation documents, and also texts written by non-lawyers, e.g. private agreements, witness statements and other documents produced by non-lawyers and used in litigation and other legal situations (Cao, 2007: 9).

Translating legal texts is an interesting and challenging job for a number of reasons. In translating legal documents, the translator should understand the characteristics of legal texts as well as be able to adapt the legal style in translations into English of legal documents. Knowledge and experience in translating legal texts are greatly needed to produce the best results. Long and complex sentences as part of legal texts’ characteristics require deep understanding and analysis. Misinterpretation may lead to a fatal error in legal translation. Legal translation is usually literal. Transpositions are more commonly found rather than modulations. Most legal translators tend to preserve the form. However, in certain situation when differences in the language system of the two languages do not allow them to preserve the form, they will apply modulation as a technique.

Borg (in Hovels, 2004) argued that “legal English is extremely formal with the following characteristics: 1) frequent use of abstract nouns, compounds, specialist words and foreign word, 2) scarcity of personal pronouns (contributing to an impersonal style and thus distance), 3) frequent use of passives, 4) unambiguous denotation of nouns, 5) few or no connotative words or other expressive features, 6) long noun phrases, and 7) long complex sentences.”

Similarly, translating Indonesian legal texts into English is also challenging for several reasons. Let us take some examples from a lease agreement drawn up in Indonesian. First, the long and complex sentence may confuse the readers and this is the first challenge for the translators. The language style along with the legal terminologies is another source of challenge. In addition to that, some words require an adequite understanding of a legal context, for example, the word “kuasa” that can be interpretated as power only, authorization, right, or even power of attorney. The translator has to be careful in selecting the equivalent in English. It is necessary to consult a notary or someone who has a deep understanding in legal context when coming across this type of challenge.

Based on the brief overview above, it seems that translating legal texts can be a challenging job since legal English is extremely complex. However, through continuous practices and constant learning, the translator will get used to the pattern and styles and be able to translate a legal text faster and faster.


Cao, Deborah. 2007. Translating Law. Toronto: Multilingual Matters. Ltd.

Hovels, Jens Peter. 2004. Characteristics of English Legal Language

Windiari, Ni Luh. 2012. The Translation of Modality in Indonesian Legislative and Private Legal Texts into English. Udayana University: Denpasar

Contributor: Luh Windiari [TranslationPapers Bali]

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