So You Want to be a Legal Translator—5 Skills for Success

An empty courtroom

Like many young students who graduate from university, I too had no idea what to do next, how to start my career and where to do it. Yes, I had B.A.s in English literature and art history, but I wasn’t sure what I could do with them. It was, in fact, by accident that a staffing agency got me an interview and I got the job to begin as a paralegal in a big patent attorneys’ firm in Tel Aviv, Israel.

There were the tedious administrative tasks to be sure, but I was occasionally required to do some translations of office actions. It was a real challenge and opened my eyes; however, it took me 20 years (four of which I worked as a trademark paralegal), an M.A. in novel writing in Manchester, U.K., and having a child to realize that this is what I really wanted to do: I wanted to be a translator; and more specifically, a legal translator.

I realized that by offering legal translation services and allowing people to use them, I could both further my own goals and help others.

So I quit my job and set out to open my own little freelance translation business. As you can imagine, it wasn’t easy, but today, after 12 years in the business, I can share what I’ve learned to help others become good legal translators.

1. Precision

Most people would tell you to have English as a native language. I disagree. While a very good command of English is required, you don’t need to be a native speaker. What you do need is to be precise, meticulous, and patient. There are hundreds and thousands of translators on the market today but not all of them are careful and patient enough to check and double check names and terms for which they are not sure. However, it you take the time to do so—and luckily we currently have all the electronic means we need—you will be able to stand behind what you translate.

2. Good Command of Source and Target Languages

So, yes, now we’re getting to the crux of things. Of course, you need to be fluent in both languages, but more than that you need to be knowledgeable about correct professional terminology, various laws, regulations, courts, acronyms, abbreviations, etc. Luckily, as I touched on above, we can use so many dictionaries, translation tools, and the internet to facilitate this. It’s all out there for us to use and offer professional translation services.

3. Specialist Knowledge

Just as in the broader field of translation, so it is in legal translation; there are specific areas of specialization. Having specialist knowledge, for instance, in corporate law, IP, or wills, is very wise and could be a great advantage for you. Translating a contract is not like translating a will. Each has its own specific terms and wording. For me, it was easy and natural to draw on my experience as a trademark and patent paralegal and begin with translations of office actions, trademark specifications, and patent litigation, and then slowly make my way to other areas.

4. Computer Skills

How lucky we are to have computers. No, really, I’m not just talking about using the computer or web to look for weird or esoteric terms—although I’m willing to bet that we can find 99 percent of what we need there, in terms of translation. I’m also talking about translation tools and applications. Being slightly technophobic, I used to shy away from sophisticated translation tools and keep awkward glossaries on my computer, so I only recently came across MemoQ, but I must admit that it has its own advantages and saves quite a lot of time.

5. Writing Skills

Finally, or perhaps most importantly, you need to be able and love to write: construct grammatically correct sentences, properly punctuate them, and generally be familiar with writing rules—in all of your languages. This will make your life so much easier and will help keep the text you translate fluent, which is basically the reason we are here. You can find more information about skills and other points of interest, such as creativity and finding your ideal client, in this article about why young lawyers should consider going solo—while not directly about translation, the author makes relevant points to my own about writing.

One More Thing

And last but not least: I’m not sure how many translators would admit it, but it always helps to have one or two good translation agencies that stand behind you and believe in you, especially when you are a rookie translator.