Legal texts can be challenging to read, let alone translate. Thus, becoming a legal translator is no easy feat. It takes a lot of determination and training, and also comes with its risks.

However, the job can be extremely rewarding and, as not everyone is prepared to take on legal translation, you might find yourself in a profitable niche.

In this article, we’ll give you some tips on how to become a legal translator and also answer some frequently asked questions by those interested in this field.

  1. Legal translator FAQs
    1. Should I be a legal translator?
    2. Do I need a degree to be a legal translator?
    3. How do I minimize risks in legal translations?
      1. Functional equivalence
      2. Descriptive equivalence
      3. Literal equivalence
    4. Do legal translators get paid well?
  2. How do I become a legal translator?
    1. Study a foreign language
    2. Get a bachelor’s degree
    3. Study the different legal systems
    4. Read legal documents
    5. Get training and experience
    6. Find work
  3. Final thoughts

Before we get into the topic at hand, let's focus on some of the most frequently asked questions from aspiring legal translators.

This is a question only you can answer, but we’ll give you an idea of what being a legal translator entails so you have the tools to do so.

A legal translator aids in the courtroom or other legal contexts by translating documents from one language to another. They must be fluent in at least two languages and have knowledge of how the legal systems work in the countries where those languages are spoken.

Furthermore, legal translations are no walk in the park. Legal translators carry a lot of responsibility as a mistake in the translation of a text can have critical consequences. Therefore, proper training and paying close attention to detail when translating are crucial in this field.

In case you were wondering, the languages with the highest translation demand in the United States are Spanish, French, Portuguese, German and Russian.

If this sounds like an exciting career path for you, keep reading as we’ll go over some tips on how to become a legal translator in the next section.

Technically, you don’t need a degree to be a legal translator, but it is unlikely you’ll get work in this field if you don’t at least have a bachelor’s degree.

Companies will expect you to have qualifications in your working languages, as well as a legal background.

Moreover, as we’ve mentioned, making mistakes in legal translations poses many risks. An error when translating a legal text can have dire consequences and the translator may be liable for the damages caused by it. For this very reason, many legal translators are lawyers as well.

As we’ve just mentioned, making mistakes in a legal translation can result in you being liable for damages. So how do you avoid this? Being aware of equivalences—and the lack thereof— is crucial.

As you might know, some terms or concepts simply don’t have an equivalent in the other language. Not to mention there are also false friends; words from different languages that are spelled the same or seem similar but have different meanings. Carrying out the relevant research for specialized terms is imperative.

Focusing specifically on equivalence, there are three different types you should be aware of when it comes to translation: functional, descriptive and literal. It is important to know when to apply each of these to minimize risks, so we’ll go over them below.

A functional equivalence means there are identical or similar legal concepts in both legal systems. Here, there is a term in the target language (the language you are translating into) that corresponds to the one in the source language (the language you are translating from), making it an ideal translation solution.

When there are differences between the terms in both legal systems, you can modify the term accordingly in the target language. You basically paraphrase the source term to make it understandable in the target language.

When there is no functional equivalence, you can sometimes use a word-by-word translation or loan. Here, the meaning should be extremely easy to understand and you’ll need to make sure you are not dealing with a false friend.

According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median pay for translators and interpreters in 2021 was just under $50k per year and $23.61 per hour. We don’t have a specific number for legal translators, but this should give you an idea.

Another thing to note is that translators that work with a high-demand language or a language for which there are not many translators (such as Arabic) are usually the highest-paid ones.

Unfortunately, there is no clear-cut path to becoming a legal translator. While other countries have sworn or certified translator degrees and specific registration requirements, this is not the case in the United States. So, to help you become a legal translator, we have put together some tips.

This might seem obvious, but studying a second language is key in this profession so we thought it was worth mentioning.

Ideally, you would start studying the foreign language of your choice in high school to make sure you reach a higher proficiency level, but you might take it up later in life.

Moreover, you might be lucky enough to grow up in a bilingual household, but you should still study the two languages to ensure you have the proper skills to be a good translator.

What matters is that you are fluent and have a good understanding of grammar, syntax and word choice in both languages.

Having a bachelor’s degree is not a requirement for translators in the United States, but it is encouraged.

Most courts and translation agencies expect you to have one. You can take on your second language as a major and, possibly, law or legal studies as a minor to get acquainted with the relevant legal terminology. You could also focus mainly on legal studies while you keep working on your second language on the side.

It is important that you study basic legal concepts, like the differences between Common Law and Civil Law, and between Common Law and Equity.

Moreover, you might be well-versed in the American legal system, but that’s not enough as systems can vary significantly from country to country.

Whatever you do, you need to fully understand legal texts in both languages, from all the countries you will translate documents from and into.

Getting acquainted with legal documents is key to becoming a good legal translator. You can start with basic documents and books and work your way up to more complex texts. There are plenty of contracts, court judgements, and appeals available online in pretty much every language.

Reading these texts will make it easier to understand legal documents when translating them and will also help you acquire the relevant legal terminology making the legal translation process faster and smoother.

Beyond a bachelor’s degree, you can get training by taking courses and attending workshops (either in person or online).

There are a lot of online courses available that will help you get acquainted with the various legal systems and the relevant terminology for each of your working languages. If you prefer online courses, Coursera offers great options from renowned universities. You can also find law courses on Open Learn and Udemy.

Translation associations also hold regular conferences and workshops to help you perfect your skills. The American Translators Association (ATA), for example, has a dedicated Law Division. It also offers a certification exam.

Once you have the proper training, it is important to gain relevant experience. Jumping directly into the job market might not be the wisest choice. You can find volunteer or internship opportunities that will help you get experience in the legal field. You can also translate documents that you find online to practice your skills and find a mentor to give you feedback. These experiences will give you the opportunity to make mistakes while minimizing risks.

We’d also advise you to prepare your own translation glossary with the terminology you come across in your studies and your work. This will save you time and ensure accuracy in your translations.

It’s finally time to find work. A safe bet for beginners is to get in touch with a translator agency. You can apply to be an in-house translator or work for them as a freelancer. Working for an agency saves you the time and effort of finding direct clients and it’s a great way to start your career as a legal translator. Some translators even prefer to keep working in this manner for their entire careers.

However, you can also start looking for clients as a freelancer and slowly build your portfolio. If you prefer a fixed job, you can work for a private company, such as an international corporation, an insurance company or a medical center.

Becoming a legal translator has its challenges, but it can be an extremely fulfilling job. If you love languages and are passionate about law, this could be the right career path for you.

We hope this article has given you the essentials to start your career in this field.

Updated August 31, 2022 in Translators