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November 7, 2022By legaltranslationsTranslations Skills

Bilingualism Alone is Not Sufficient for Accurate Legal Document Translation

What is meant by bilingualism?

The term ‘bilingual’ means ‘can speak two languages. It is one step above ‘monolingual’ (one language) and one step below ‘multilingual’, indicating an ability to speak many languages. 

Bilingual people may be bilingual from childhood because their two parents speak different native languages and use both at home. Many other people are bilingual or multilingual because they live in a country or part of a country in which more than one language is commonly spoken. For example, most Balinese can speak at least Balinese, their native language, and Bahasa Indonesia, the official language of Indonesia. 


    Being bilingual means just that – an ability to speak two languages. It doesn’t mean that the bilingual person has the skills to professionally translate documents from one language to another, although it is of course beneficial to be able to do so in a day or non-professional sense.

    Additional skills and expertise other than just being bilingual or multilingual are needed to professionally translate legal documents or statements. Examples of these skills are described below.

    1. Subject matter experts

    Legal documents are subject and context-specific. Very often, the way the words are used is specific to a particular legal context. The bilingual person who attempts to translate a legal document without subject-specific knowledge is likely to misinterpret the meaning of the words used and provide a translated document that does not mean the same as the original.

    2. Legal terminology knowledge

    Legal translators are used to using legal terminology. Because they translate from one language to another, they must be familiar with the equivalent legal terminology used in two or more legal jurisdictions. The comparison with someone who is simply bilingual is like comparing an ordinary person who turns on taps and uses the shower or a hose pipe with the plumber who installs or maintains them.

    3. Cultural knowledge

    Quite often a translation of a legal document or text is necessary between two different operating cultural systems. There may be no clearly defined legal definition or existence in one of the languages. This means that the legal translator must be able to do his or her best when translating legal documents.

    4. Confidentiality

    Legal documents and statements are confidential and professional legal translators are expected to maintain strict confidentiality when translating any legal information. Failure to do this may end up delivering sensitive information into the wrong hands. Even if the ordinary bilingual person understands the concept of privacy and confidentiality they may not appreciate the extremely important aspect of confidentiality as it applies to legal text.

    5. Law change updates

    While some laws and legal definitions change hardly at all for many years, even centuries in some cases, this may not be the same in the two corresponding jurisdictions. In some cases, the laws may change considerably in a relatively short time. The professional legal translator is expected to keep abreast of law change updates or at least is trained to check on law change updates when assessing a legal document or statement before starting its translation.

    6. Deadlines

    The professional translator is normally expected to provide a firm date and timeline for the translation of legal documents. Experience is key to being able to provide such deadlines for translation projects.

    7. Tone

    The tone of the original legal document must be conveyed during translation so that the reader of the translated copy understands the level of importance of the original statement. 


    The importance of using a professional legal translator as opposed to simply using any bilingual or multilingual person to carry out a translation for you cannot be stressed enough. 

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