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Machine Translation and #LegalTranslation – A Potentially Unhealthy Mix

Legal translation requires strict confidentiality, careful precision, and familiarity with the legal systems in question. The use of publicly available machine translation tools is almost guaranteed to fail in both areas. Not only does machine translation hold the potential for producing useless, misleading translations; any text entered in the machine translation tool may be shared on the Internet for all perpetuity. In addition, many types of legal translation (such as the translation of discovery) require the translator to testify in court.


Confidentiality


Text that you enter in publicly available machine translation tools is not confidential. This could become a liability issue with many legal texts.


According to the October 25, 2017, version of Google’s Terms of Service, “When you upload, submit, store, send or receive content to or through our Services, you give Google (and those we work with) a worldwide license to use, host, store, reproduce, modify, create derivative works (such as those resulting from translations…), communicate, publish, publicly perform, publicly display and distribute such content” (https://www.google.com/policies/terms/).


Accuracy


Legal translation is a highly specialized discipline. It requires familiarity with legal terminology, legal concepts, and the legal systems involved. In addition, it typically involves legal research to find legal equivalents, which often do not exist. Terms may also vary depending on jurisdiction.


Below are some examples of sentences that I ran through some online machine translation tools.


Example (Google Translate):


  • English: “The defendant was Mirandized and took the fifth; he understood his right against self-incrimination. Further down the road, the case went to trial, but the defendant decided not to take the stand.”

  • Spanish (Google Translate): “El acusado fue sorprendido y tomó el quinto; entendió su derecho a no autoinculparse. Más adelante, el caso fue a juicio, pero el acusado decidió no subir al estrado."

  • Back translation from Spanish to English: “The defendant was caught by surprise and took the fifth; he understood his right against self-incrimination. Later on, the case went to trial, but the defendant decided not to get up on the stand.”

Issues:

  • Mirandized: Somehow, having one's constitutional rights read becomes “caught by surprise” – a total mistranslation.

  • Taking the fifth: The Spanish “tomó el quinto” (“took the fifth”) bears no reference to the 5th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. It is simply an incomplete sentence with a missing object (“the fifth what?”).

  • The stand: The Spanish “subir al estrado” simply means to go up on the stand. It does not suggest anything about testifying. The reader might wonder whether the defendant did not “go up on the stand” because he thought he was a bad singer. A professional human translator would translate it to the equivalent of “decided not to testify” since that is what it means.

Example (Bing Translate):


  • English: “The defendant was Mirandized and took the fifth; he understood his right against self-incrimination. Further down the road, the case went to trial, but the defendant decided not to take the stand.”

  • Spanish: “El acusado fue derechos y tomó la quinta; él entendía su derecho contra la autoincriminación. Más abajo de la carretera, el caso fue a juicio, pero el acusado decidió no tomar el estrado".

  • Back translation from Spanish to English: “The defendant was rights and took the fifth; he understood his right against self-incrimination. Below the highway, the case went to trial, but the defendant decided not to take the stand.”

Issues:


  • The phrase “fue derechos” (“was rights”) is nonsensical.

  • Below the highway” (as the Spanish means) – an obvious mistranslation.

  • What about that stand? In this version involving the stand, tomar el estrado literally means to physically take or grab the stand, perhaps to haul it off somewhere.


Discovery

If evidence in a criminal or litigation case consists of foreign-language material, the translator may have certify the translation and testify in court to the accuracy of the translation. Google Translate cannot take the stand, and no translators in their right mind would testify to its accuracy.


Machine Translation vs. CAT Tools

Machine translation (MT) should not be confused with CAT tools (Computer-Assisted Translation). A CAT tool is a basic translator tool, along with a computer and dictionaries. CAT tools feature translation memory, which enables the translator to replicate previously translated sentences, or segments. The result is greater efficiently, higher accuracy, and enhanced consistency. CAT tools usually also include a termbase (glossary) feature. In a later post, we will examine the benefits of CAT tools.


Conclusion

Machine translation has its use; generally, it serves to get the general gist of a text that is not complex and not confidential. In some fields, machine translation can be coupled with post-editing to produce an accurate test.


However, #legaltranslation is a highly specialized discipline. It requires the expertise of a human legal translator with in-depth knowledge of the legal systems and legal concepts of the countries and subject matter in question. In addition, the inherently confidential nature of many legal texts precludes the use of publicly available machine translation tools.

Some law firms hire translators as part of their staff. Legal professionals can also work directly with a freelance translator or hire a translation agency that specializes in legal translation, such as WTS Translations, LLC.


WTS Translations offers accurate legal translations for law firms, the judiciary, corporations, government agencies, and private individuals. Where possible and appropriate, we use translators who are certified by the American Translators Association or by comparable organizations, courts, or government entities abroad. Click here to learn more.

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