Have you got your degree in translation and interpretation and you think the law is fascinating? Are you starting to translate professionally and you want to find out how to specialise in legal translation? Here are four strategies for specialising in legal translation from lawyer-linguist Lucie Davioud.


business-962358_1920You’ve finished the first stage of your education. Now you want to go on and specialise in law. Congratulations, because you’ve picked a speciality that’s in high demand with great career prospects. Due to the financial crisis, companies are being forced to expand their markets, and whenever a company goes international, it means a lot of big opportunities for legal translators.

However, specialising in legal translation is not exactly a piece of cake. It is a great responsibility. The consequences of a poor translation (ruined relationships with customers, lawsuits) can be nightmarish.

To take on legal translation work, you need an ongoing education specifically targeting not only linguistics, but law. For that matter, the main challenge in the legal translation industry is finding professionals who’ve got a solid understanding of both linguistics and law.

That’s why translators who reinforce their translation and interpretation degree with legal studies especially designed for translators respond to the industry’s needs better.

Here are four valuable strategies for specialising in legal translation.

Strategy 1: Choose your language combination

There’s no reason to specialise in legal translation in all your language combinations. For instance, if you’re a FR/ES>EN translator and handle mostly corporate documents, you might choose to specialise in legal translation for your FR>EN combination only.

That’s what I did. There came a time when I decided to focus on ES>FR legal translation. Legal translation from English was taking me too long, because I don’t know the intricacies of the common law system well enough.

Don’t forget, when you choose your legal translation language combination, you’re focusing on mastering not only two languages, but also two different legal systems.

Strategy 2: Fine tune your speciality

As a jurist, I’m astonished at the erroneous belief that an expert translator must be an expert in every branch of law.

Law is so complex a discipline that, especially when you are just getting started, it’s better to focus on a few branches only (by which I mean areas like family law, commercial law, procedural law and criminal law).

Another option, if you don’t feel sure enough of yourself yet, is to focus on certain types of documents (notarial deeds, articles of association, contracts, rulings, and so forth). Consider the kinds of documents you translate the most often or the kinds that have the highest demand in your language combination.

Later, when you feel comfortable with the branches you know and want to add more, that’s when you should move on and learn about new subjects. At first, I recommend getting a more thorough education in fewer branches.

Strategy 3: To improve your productivity, improve your education

Whether we like it or not, in the legal translation industry we typically charge by the word. This means your direct customers and the translation agencies you work for are comparing your rates with other those of translators.

When you’re just starting out, it might seem tough to find steady work in the mid-to-high rate range. Instead, I recommend improving your productivity. That is, translating more words per hour.

You’ll find there are two ways of improving your productivity:

  1. Techniques and tools to boost productivity. These include the Pomodoro technique, CAT tools, more-effective keyboard management, macros and automated tasks and processes.
  2. A specific education in your chosen speciality. In this case, an education in the branch of the legal system concerned in your source documents.

You don’t have to be a lawyer to translate legal documents accurately, either. Four years of law at university covers too wide a scope and addresses details you’re never going to use as a translator. You won’t have to counsel clients or defend them in court. Thank goodness!

What you need is a highly specific education in the particular branch of law you work with, so you can understand and analyse legal documents accurately. To translate legal material, you need to have an overall grasp of the subject and understand how legal proceedings and mechanisms work.

With a broad grasp of the law and education-honed expertise in your speciality, you can:

  • Better understand key legal concepts.
  • Save a lot of time searching for information and resources, because you’ll already have reliable sources you can go to when you need them.
  • Tackle the job of translating complex legal documents with confidence and assurance.
Strategy 4: Look for clients who need your speciality

As you’ll find with experience, it’s often your own clients who dictate what your speciality is. In my case, after having worked for several years in Spanish law firms mainly advising French-speaking clients, my “natural speciality” was translating commercial law documents from Spanish into French. And after five years as a legal translator, I can say it’s more profitable for me to perfect this language combination and this branch of the law than it is to expand my range to new legal systems or languages in which I’m not that proficient.

Once you’ve got your speciality, you’ll translate faster and have a better command of things, and you can think about using your references to find more clients in your branch of the law.

Let’s look at a few examples.

  • If you translate commercial documents from French to English, you might contact international law firms that have offices in France and the UK.
  • If you translate intellectual property documents, you might get in touch with patent and trademark agencies where you can offer your services and prove your expertise.
  • If you translate family law documents for international adoptions, divorces and similar affairs, you might be interested in introducing yourself to associations of expatriates.

These are the four strategies I wanted to share with you today. They’re the tips I wish I’d received when I started specialising in legal translation. In conclusion, a solid knowledge of the branch of law you work with is fundamental if you’re to translate with judgment, skill, assurance and speed. Trying to embrace too many specialities or languages you’re not proficient in will spoil your focus.


Author: Lucie DavioudLucie_01 baja cortada

Lucie is a specialised legal translator and holds a licentiate degree in law. She is also the founder of Leglosa, a school providing online courses in legal French and French law for attorneys and translators.

Do you translate legal documents from or to French and want to further your education? Visit the Leglosa website and find out how to participate in a draw for courses in legal French and French law for translators.


See also: Becoming a Legal Translator – published on 19 January 2015