A cognitive slip and something about the translation relationship

The following exchange on Twitter got me thinking about the difference between important and difficult translations and how I might have confused the two on occasions.


When Ken Adams, an expert on contract drafting, added the con of having to translate ambiguous contractese to Gwenydd Jones’s list of pros and cons of legal translation, I immediately thought, “Contracts? There are far trickier things to translate. Namely, judgments.”


While both types of document pose different problems, I find judgments, and court documents in general, more difficult and time-consuming to translate than contracts, even though they may be more stimulating in terms of legal content and language.

What’s more important: a judgment or a contract?

But, if we had to generalise, which type of translation is usually more important: contracts or judgments? In which case is a mistake or a below-par translation more likely to be costly?

Translators obviously aim to translate every document as accurately and as appropriately as possible all the time, but I’d say a mistake in — or not a very good translation of — a contract has more potential for negative consequences.

Why? Because contracts are instruments, and translations of them are often used directly in operations and projects, maybe quite a lot in the case of templates. People base decisions on them, sometimes quite big ones; they can be worth a lot of money, one way or another.

People also make decisions based on court decisions, but, on many occasions, the translation of a court decision may not be as vital for the client or the reader — at least not the translation of the entire document.

With contracts, each and every word matters; getting the details right is vital. With court decisions, though, the details — as interesting and challenging as they might be to translate — may not be of much consequence to the reader or at least so important.

Omissible details?

For a start, you could often delete much of the details about procedure from court documents (prevalent in Spanish decisions) without affecting the important information for the reader. You’d almost certainly be improving the readability and, therefore, probably also the usability and value of the text.

Of course, when we’re selectively removing large tracts of text we believe the client or the reader doesn’t need to know, we’re not talking about a standard translation. However, it might sometimes be applicable and desirable.

Often the legal grounds section dealing with the court’s reasoning and the application of the law could also be omitted. In many cases, the client only needs to know the results, effects and requirements the judgment or order imposes on them or their client.

Therefore, two of the more challenging elements of Spanish judgments for translators (the procedural language and the legal reasoning) — where more time is often spent and inaccuracies are more likely, may not actually be that important for the purpose of a given translation.

Adapted legal translations

What does this mean? I’m not suggesting radically changing how we translate certain documents as a rule. Sometimes, though, adapting or abridging the translation quite radically might be just what the client needs.

Although I’ve never done it for anyone, I can think of circumstances in which the client might be better off with an only-the-important-bits translation, particularly for court documents. They might not even need a translation at all.

Twice I’ve been asked for a translation when it turned out all the client really needed was me to read the document (judgments on both occasions) and answer a couple of questions.

Full translations would also have helped (except on one of those occasions, when there was no time for a translation), but it was quicker and easier for everyone to have me tell them what they wanted to know about the judgment.

The main disadvantage of this type of service is that it’s harder to tell whether the translator has got it right. Of course, ideally, the client would only be using, or trying to find, translators they know and trust in the first place.


Is there an implication for pricing from this important-versus-difficult cognitive-slip-cum-observation? I normally charge more for things I know will take longer and cost me more, which generally includes anything written by a judge or that comes from a court. However, given the arguably greater importance of contract translations for the client (or, at least, the greater importance of an accurate and elegant translation of the entire document), maybe that’s the wrong way to look at it.

Maybe, at the very least, contracts should always be given an extra round of revision — either by the original translator, a colleague or the client in-house if they can.

The translation relationship

Difficult obviously doesn’t mean important, but it’s probably a cognitive slip that’s easily made albeit also easily avoided if the reader’s perspective and translation’s purpose are kept in mind.

And while you can speculate about what matters to clients and readers, it’s a 1000 times better if you can find out first hand. Which, of course, requires some kind of relationship between the translator and the client.

Because a translation is not always just a translation. There is often more than one solution, but to determine which one will best serve a given situation, we often need some kind of discovery, exchange and even collaboration process.

Written by Rob Lunn

Rob Lunn is a freelance legal translator based in Spain. He translates from Spanish and Catalan into English.

4 comments to “A cognitive slip and something about the translation relationship”
  1. My only reservation is that couching the difference as one of importance could be confusing, as it could be understood as referring to importance to the reader. As you make clear, it’s really a matter of the risks involved.

    • Well, for contracts I did mean the importance to the reader/user of the translation as well as the client (who may not be one of the users/parties) in the sense that it might be more important for them to get an elegant, accurate and full translation compared to other types of translations that may lend themselves to a different solution or focus. Anyway, maybe I’m just repeating myself.

      My original observation is probably oversimplifying things and may ignore a whole range of circumstances, but the distinction might be useful provided the translator can get fairly close to knowing the real needs of the client (i.e., not just “I need a translation of this for tomorrow”).

      Thanks for you comment!

  2. Certainly as translators it’s easy to get hung up on the parts of the text that we find the trickiest and lose sight of how much these parts matter to the customer or the text as a whole. This post is a good reminder to take a step back and think about the bigger picture. It also shows how valuable a freelancer with initiative can be to a lawyer, compared to having an agency as the middleman.

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