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The Difference Between a Legal Interpreter and a Legal Translator

Jan 30, 2018

Attorneys, courts and case law often conflate the need for legal translators or legal interpreters. While both types of language professionals carry meaning from one language to another, they do it in different contexts, work with different source materials, and require a somewhat different skill set and even a different personality. When handling international disputes, it’s important to understand the distinction between the two to ensure you get the language support you need. If you find yourself asking; “what is the Difference Between a Legal Interpreter and a Legal Translator?” we have summarized what each does and their skillsets below to help.

Legal interpretation

What they do: A legal interpreter works with the spoken word during depositions, in court, over the phone, in video conferences, and in interviews. Interpretation can take place simultaneously, like you might see for speakers at United Nations meetings, or consecutively as you might see in a courtroom where a foreign witness pauses their testimony to allow an interpreter to repeat their words in the local language.

Skillset: An interpreter has to be a quick thinker. He or she needs to be the sort of person comfortable with operating on the spot, in the heat of the moment. The conversion of words from one language to another has to be as close to instantaneous as possible. Therefore, an interpreter must be a strategic thinker who can quickly make judgment calls about the words that best reflect a deponent’s or an interviewee’s meaning. In addition, the linguist has to be aware of the legal implications of one word choice over another. All of this calculus occurs silently, instantly, and invisibly in the interpreter’s thoughts. It’s a high-wire act that requires a personality, not unlike an athlete’s or a performer’s.

Legal translation

What they do: A legal translator works with the written word, including contracts, briefs, discovery and other court documents, patents, medical documents, etc. Where an interpreter’s job is about speed, a translator’s work is about depth. He or she has to produce the most accurate rendering possible of a source document into a different language. To do this, translators typically have more time than interpreters, though the time constraints vary case by case.

Skillset: While poring over contracts, patents, discovery documentation, and transcripts, a legal translator must be a person attuned to subtleties everywhere, gleaning meanings hidden in language differences and identifying nuances that have the potential for moving the legal process forward. In a sense, where the interpreter’s personality resembles the acrobat, the translator’s is more that of the persistent, street-wise detective.

Things interpreters and translators have in common

Obviously, both types of linguists require mastery of the languages involved — for interpreters and translators, accuracy is always priority number one. In order to achieve this, extensive knowledge of the relevant cultures involved is something both types of linguists need. There can be conflicting meanings or contextual shadings lurking in what may, on the surface, seem to be the same word in two languages. In legal contexts, these differences can result in profound consequences and you need to be able to rely on your legal linguist to get it right.

One classic example of translated words gone wrong is the Treaty of Waitangi between Britain and the Maori of New Zealand in 1840. In the Maori translation of the treaty, the British were to provide a turnkey legal system for the Maori’s use in exchange for letting the British use some land; in the English version, England was taking full possession of New Zealand. Over the next few decades, a series of violent disputes – called the New Zealand Land Wars – erupted over land ownership issues.

Another example highlights 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 that went all the way to the Supreme People’s Court of China, the indefinite article “a” was translated on each instance in the Chinese version of the patent claims to “one” – a specific numerical value. This narrowed the scope of protection in the claims and wound up fatally undermining the plaintiff’s case.

The expert you need

A team effort is always more likely to succeed when each role is assigned to a qualified individual who is personally suited to the work. This is absolutely critical when assembling a legal team to bring a dispute to a favorable conclusion. Morningside’s extensive litigation support services can match your needs to the right type of linguist, providing you with the confidence you need to win your case.


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