Legal Translation and Interpreting Services Are Not The Same

No — legal translation and Interpreting Services are not the same. When it comes to legal matters, everything is of significance. The slightest, most subtle differences or adjustments in language can dramatically alter the course of a dispute, mediation, or filing. That is why legal linguists have to observe an exceedingly meticulous approach to their work. Anything less wields the potential for enormous consequences. 

If we are discussing legal proceedings that involve non-English-speaking personnel, the weeds only grow thicker.

In most “normal” legal scenarios in the United States, those with serious implications (criminal or custody cases, for example) and those without (small claims court, traffic court, etc.) enjoy a process that runs rather smoothly. If all parties speak English, including both legal staff as well as the plaintiffs and defendants, the work is not terribly cumbersome. It might not be easy, or expedient; but so long as a legal translation of any sort is not required, most, if not all, of the hold-ups are predictable.

The circumstances take a 180 when English is a second language. 

It doesn’t matter if the example is a massive jury trial, closed deposition, or custody hearing, everyone in the room needs to be on the same page. The same can be said of the preparation. Clients and attorneys require transparency. Transparency hinges on communication. Communication requires understanding. Client and attorney must have the ability to communicate with one another effectively and frequently in order to move forward. 

They cannot do this themselves if a language barrier is present. Someone else has to step up and bring it all together. Someone who is well-versed in legal jargon and complexities, along with being highly-trained in fostering dialogue among individuals when multiple languages are part of the equation. 

These people are legal translators or legal interpreters.  

And no, they do not perform the same service. 

What’s the Difference?

Before espousing on the divergent characteristics between the two disciplines, it bears mentioning that both legal translation and Interpreting Services have one critical ethos in common: the phrase “all it takes is one” — which is to say, all it takes is one tiny, seemingly-innocuous error, verbally or in print, and a case can go from a sure-thing to an abject disappointment — or worse. 

Though it needn’t be explained, the sheer fact that both disciplines center around language conversion is another commonality. 

That is pretty much where it ends. 

The Basics of Legal Translation

In the first paragraph of this section, “verbally or in print” is underlined. That is not a mistake. 

Legal translation services focus on the written word, the “in print” part of the story. In other words, documents, online and on paper, covering myriad details pertaining to clients, cases, precedents, evidence, and transcripted dialogue. 


Facets of legal translation services include:


Side-by-side studies and research 

Intellectual property (copyrights)

Deeds, mortgages, bank statements 

Insurance policies

Immigration filings


Legal translators often have heavy caseloads. They are rarely bored, as you might have guessed — particularly pertaining to immigration concerns. Green card and passport filings occur on an hourly basis in most regions of the United States. What this means is that there are always opportunities for legal translators to play an extraordinarily important role in someone’s livelihood. 

One advantage to legal translation services is that the linguistic experts at work have the ability to operate with a little more flexibility than their interpretation counterparts. They can — and have to — dig into legal material with a high degree of emphasis on small details in an effort to bypass potentially ruinous mistakes. Legal translators also have to be able to call upon a deep knowledge of regional and cultural nuances when deciphering documents or other material necessitating localization observance. 

The Basics of Legal Interpretation

This is where “verbally” from the opening paragraph to this section enters the spotlight. 

You have likely witnessed interpreters on the job at least once or twice. They are the people on TV standing (or sitting, if you prefer) next to an athlete, celebrity, or government official overseas and translating from one language to another. The key here is an easy one: interpreters speak. 

As for legal interpreters, they may become involved in every aspect of a case or proceeding. 


Facets of legal interpreting services include:

Depositions and mediations

Trials and hearings

Audio/video statements

Immigration filings

Over-the-phone attorney consultation


That legal interpretation services mandate speech is not the only difference, it is just the most discernible. Another is speed. Legal interpreters must work fast. There is no room for time delays. On a moment’s notice, they have to convey — clearly and accurately — what one party is trying to express. As there is no room for pauses, there is also no room for margin for error. Outside of legal matters, it might not be a life-changing spectacle if a word or phrase is a touch altered or even flubbed. Within the confines of a courtroom for a trial or hearing, such an error could prove devastating towards a case’s chance for success. 

The words legal translators choose have to arrive in a near-instantaneous fashion. It is easy to surmise that a sense of overwhelming pressure could hinder their functionality. That is usually not a concern. Those who devote their lives to legal interpretation are often highly-skilled, highly-experienced professionals who are comfortable pivoting from one sentence or thought to the next regardless of the situation. 

You’re Covered Either Way

One thing you can rest assured of is that legal translators and legal interpreters are dedicated linguistic experts who take their jobs extremely seriously. The vast majority of those in the field dedicated their entire educational careers to this vocation — and sometimes, an interpreter can work as a translator or vice-versa. 

What any attorney or client needs to keep in mind is that both disciplines call to order several unique and important distinctions that cannot be underestimated. The scope of linguistic services available throughout all industries is wide and ever-expanding. 

Why should legal translation or interpretation services be any different?

Timothy Hands – Writer at The Language Doctors

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