How to Hire and Work with Document Translation Services

Any attorney considering focusing his or her practice on providing bilingual legal services will need to solve the problem of document translation. Choosing the right translation service can be crucial to success of a bilingual practice. Just as your clients will speak languages other than English, they may have many non-English documents with important bearing on their legal rights and responsibilities. They may be involved in legal disputes that span country or linguistic borders. An incorrectly translated word may have disastrous implications for a case.

But just as important as any legal and ethical requirements, your clients themselves, their friends and family will often be fully immersed in non-English languages and will notice both correctness and nuance, or the lack thereof. By taking a slipshod approach to document translation, whether yourself or through an employee, contractor or service, you may unintentionally communicate a lack of respect for someone’s entire culture. At the very least your clients—actual and potential—as well as their no-English-speaking adversaries may ascribe carelessness to you based on poor translations. These are exactly the sorts of ideas you don’t want getting around tight-knit social communities. Ensuring a high level of translation quality is not only the right thing to do, it is good business.


A major reason to hire a certified service is quality assurance. With potentially many translators working on your legal documents over the space of years, by selecting a service that with a certification guarantee, you ensure that a high level of quality will always be met.

In addition, the certifications themselves, and even a specific type, may be required in many legal contexts, from litigation to the mundane. Certifications are often required when translating official documents, such as birth or death certificates or even college transcripts. Another common requirement is when submitting documents to agencies. As a small example, in order to get a document translated from a foreign language accepted by the state of Utah’s Driver License Division, the translator must have successfully completed an acceptable program and have filed a copy of the resulting certificate with the Division. Similarly, a certification that a translated document corresponds to the non-English original, made by a translator accredited by a body such as the American Translators Association (ATA) (website at, may be required for introduction in some court contexts, or in a foreign country. Translators can of course also help with a variety of other tasks where certification is not required, including marketing, website localization, and brochure creation.


Translation certifications vary by country. In the U.S., accredited translation organizations include the ATA, which offers certification in many different language pairs. Other countries may require certain translations to be performed by diplomaed or sworn translators, as defined under the laws of those jurisdictions. Make sure that translators you hire are not only members of any accredited bodies but also certified by them.


To find a certified translator, refer to the directory of an accredited body. For example, the ATA features online directories where you can search for both individuals and companies providing translation services (see Searches can be restricted not only based on ATA certification status, but also specialization in subject areas including certain subfields of law.


As with hiring any contractor, you will want to know the answers to basic questions such as how long the translator or service has been in business, how much total volume of work they have performed within the legal industry and without, and the like. Another important consideration is the software tools and other aspects of information management, security and confidentiality in place. Ask how much work the translator or service has performed for other attorneys. In addition you may want to ask language-specific questions such as the following:

1. In what language(s) do you provide translation services? What dialects? What is your or your employees’ mother tongue?

In general, it is good if the language into which an important document will be translated is in the translator’s mother tongue, for maximum control of nuance. Hence a translation service will ideally have people with mother tongues on both sides of a needed translation language pair.

2. What translation services do you provide?

A full-featured translation service should provide summary, draft and certified translations, as well as editing and proofreading .Make sure you understand not only the fee structure, which will often be passed on to clients, but also how much lead time is involved for various types of translation requests. Ask about the translation procedure itself: is the document translated, then proofread before being finalized? If relevant, also ask if emergency rush service is available. If relevant, ask whether the service or translator will work on-site on request for logistical and document control reasons.

3. What are your translation and linguistic qualifications and certifications?

As with any contractor, ensure that the certifications possessed by the translators involved are correctly matched to your legal requirements.

4. Are you (or any of your employees) a member of any professional bodies?

Just as with attorneys, membership in professional organizations can indicate someone with a high level of skill, as well as a dedication to continuing education.

5. Do you handle bilingual and monolingual format?

In bilingual format, the translated text is placed next to the original. This can be useful for translating documents such as forms, since all readers can see clearly what text and meaning corresponds to each area of the document. Monolingual or “mirror image” format maintains the formatting of the original document, but with all translated text.

6. What is your legal background? Are you (or do you employ) an attorney with the required language background?

Ideally, due to the sensitive nature of legal work, a translation service will employ at least some attorneys for both translation and proofreading purposes. All translators used in a legal context should have good familiarity with legal terminology in source and target languages, as well as being familiar with the use of bilingual legal dictionaries. Ask how the translator or service would track and identify documents to correspond with your client and matter numbers, Bates numbers, and other document codes encountered in your practice.


Prior to or just after hiring a translator or service, you or a member of your firm should personally verify the translator’s credentials. After the first work samples have been produced, if you have deep familiarity with the source and target language, carefully proofread it yourself. Is it free from spelling, syntax and grammar errors? Is the precise meaning of the original text preserved as closely as possible, and is the translation structured to be as free as possible from misinterpretation? If you are not capable of performing these checks yourself, find someone who is.

Other steps should be performed to make sure that your entire practice is correctly set up to handle translation services. Have all client-facing forms, including but not limited to authorizations and retainer agreements, translated into each target language served by your practice. Also, make sure that clients are informed up-front about the cost of translation services, so that there are no surprises with the first translation bill.

All opinions, advice, and experiences of guest bloggers/columnists are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions, practices or experiences of Solo Practice University®.

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