The critical role of legal translators in criminal court

Every word of the law holds authority and sacredness to it. Because of this, the translated text of the law is held with the same high regard. In recent years, the translation and interpretation industry in the U.S. has significantly grown. According to the Department of Labor, it has stated that from 2014 to 2024, the industry will have about 29% growth. However, this article will discuss translations and how it helps bridge language barriers, especially for those with Limited English Proficiency (LEP). We will also discuss the challenges of legal translations despite how readily available translation software and machines are in the market. 

Now, let’s get right into it! 

Problems of language barriers in court hearings

It cannot be denied that when it comes to criminal court hearings, legal representation is one of the rights readily given to any accused individual. But what happens to the accused if they are Limited English Proficiency (LEP)? There is a higher chance that justice isn’t achieved due to language barriers. According to an article by PBS entitled, “How bad translation by court interpreters can turn misunderstanding into injustice,” PBS interviewed Patricia Michelsen-King, who teaches interpretation at Virginia Commonwealth University. She recounted that a Spanish speaker screamed at court, “I didn’t rape her!” because his interpreter used the word violación. This word does not translate to “violation” in Spanish. It means rape. The article discussed how misunderstandings such as this aren’t all that uncommon in courts. Because of this, some laws have been passed to ensure that courts remain impartial and fair to those that are LEP. An example of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, wherein the Supreme Court has stated discrimination due to low English proficiency will not be tolerated. This was further emphasized in 2000 when President Bill Clinton signed Executive Order 13166, in which all LEPs should have access to any Federal funded language services such as interpreters and translators. 

Legal translation services filling up the gaps

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, from 2019 to 2029, interpreters and translators will have a job outlook of 20%, which is much faster than any other industry. As we have established, language barriers can easily cause injustice for the LEP plaintiff or defendant. Finding the right legal translation services that can effectively impart the message of the source material to the translated text without jeopardizing it is absolutely crucial. We’ve gathered some information from three language experts regarding this matter. The American Translator’s Association (ATA) is an organization dedicated to advancing the translation and interpreting profession. On their website, members of their organization should be able to “faithfully, accurately, and impartially” translate the word and meaning of the translated text from the source material. The translator must uphold client confidentiality with the information they obtained. As for Slator, a language industry information provider, based on their interview with Dr. Victoria Froltsova, Head of Translation at Vienna-based law firm, points out that errors can change lives when it comes to legal translations, especially when it comes to legal translations in criminal cases. From Dr. Froltsova’s experience, they had to return translations due to some information from the crime scene not being translated well enough and quality management when it comes to legal translations is “the most demanding part of our work.” On our end from Tomedes, as an ATA-accredited language service provider, words matter and depending on the jurisdiction of the state or country from where you’re seeking legal translation services, the legal documents have to follow your court’s jurisdiction format. The legal translator must have a localized understanding of the law and language pairs of the legal document.

The importance of legal representation through translation

Since we have already established legal representation and having language-based services available is mandatory in court, let’s go a little deeper and focus on the subject of the translated text. Unlike interpretation, translation is more legally binding as it is documented. According to a research paper by Ali Darwish entitled “The Role of Forensic Translation in Courtrooms Contexts,” translators have a duty in not acting as “judges or jury to release or punish wrongdoers.” Their role is to ensure that the translated text carries the message of the original text for everyone to achieve justice. Even though the research article primarily deals with forensic translations, a more specialized aspect of the legal translation, it points out issues in translation that make the law and, in turn, achieve justice trickier. 

The law is already hard to grasp for the average English speaker. Think how much harder it is for the LEP plaintiff or defendant who now has to deal with legal jargon and terminology while barely understanding what’s going on due to language barriers. Because of this, the role of legal translators are crucial as they need a good understanding of the law, and they have to be fluent with the language pairs they specialize in. Due to globalization, the need for legal language services will increase. Another research paper by Radegundis Stolze entitled, “Translation and Law,” discusses that the lawyers don’t expect a replica of the source text when it comes to the translated text. What matters to them is that the message isn’t “lost in translation.” The paper discusses the lexical, cultural, and linguistic challenges when it comes to legal translations. Because of this, specialized subjects and courses were created to resolve these issues, such as comparative law and translation studies. The law is heavily influenced by the culture from which it originates. There’s a lot of considerations such as “the legal concepts, stylistic features, analysis of macrostructure, the problems of lexicography, etc.” With ever-increasing demand, how can translators keep up?

Law firms using machines for translation

As the world gets more and more automated for the past decade, translation technology has advanced significantly. Because of this, some law firms are incorporating translation software and machines to translate their legal documents. The reason for doing this is that it’s cheaper and takes up less time than hiring a translator. However, according to an article by Madison Elizabeth Wahler, “A Word is Worth a Thousand Words: Legal Implications of Relying on Machine Translation Technology,” it found that malpractice can quickly occur due to the translations of the machines and software. Let’s be clear. These law firms are not using Google Translate. They are using the same state-of-the-art technology being used by language service companies. However, there is a reason why these companies still employ translators and experts in legal translations, and that’s because the machines used for translation are still in their infancy. They don’t have the legal and cultural understanding of the text they are translating, which leads to a higher chance of mistranslating legal text.   



Legal translation services are needed more than ever due to our globalized world. In different parts of the world, like in the U.S., legal language services are made available to anyone who needs them to bring true justice, especially when it comes to criminal court. The challenge now is developing a method in which legal documents can be translated quickly without compromising the quality of the translated text. The current solution to this dilemma is by combining both the skill and expertise of legal translators and the advanced technology of translation software and machines.

Author Bio: Ofer Tirosh, CEO of Tomedes, a language service provider that specializes in legal translation services. Over the years, our legal translation services have successfully assisted legal projects in over 1,000+ language pairs for brands and organizations to help them achieve their global objectives. To know more, visit their website.