Beware of your dictionary, especially if it’s a legal one

According to this article by De Groot and Van Laer, most of the legal dictionaries that you’re likely to pick up may not be very useful:

To translate between the different languages of the Member States of the European Union (EU) about one hundred seventy bilingual legal dictionaries are available. Regrettably, the quality of most of these dictionaries is poor to extremely bad. Only a few dictionaries are of good quality. (De Groot & Van Laer, 2008, p. 4)

And why is this so?

It seems to us that many authors or compilers of bilingual legal dictionaries do not understand how legal translations should be made. They simply make a list of legal terms in the source language and give for each term one or more words from the target language as “translation” without any further information on the legal context. Because of the system-specificity of legal terminology, this kind of dictionaries is practically useless.  (De Groot & Van Laer, 2008, p. 4)

The article goes on to give criteria for good legal dictionaries (on page 9) and lists the best and the poorest dictionaries found in the study carried out by the authors, who were impressed with only 12 out of over 200 dictionaries that they assessed.

Apart from talk on legal dictionaries, the article also has some good information on legal translation in general and in particular on how to deal with non-equivalence: the excitement of everyone’s existence. 🙂


De Groot, R. and Van Laer, Conrad, The Quality of Legal Dictionaries: An Assessment (October 21, 2008). Available at SSRN:

Written by Rob

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

4 comments to “Beware of your dictionary, especially if it’s a legal one”
  1. I think that you should definitely approach a professional translation company when you want your legal documents want to be translated. In this way you make sure legal terms are used in the right context and that the legal translation itself if accurate. Legal documents are very complicated and only a person who has all knowledge and skills of law and the two languages will be able to produce an accurate translation. You should better not go trying to translate the documents yourself because even one little mistake can cause HUGE problems.

    • Wise words indeed, Smith. I’d only add that it’s sometimes even better if that professional translation company is also an independent legal translator as that way you know exactly who you’re dealing with and the communication is sure to be more direct and fluid. When you go through a translation agency, it’s sometimes hard to know who is doing what for you and quite often difficult to speak with person who actually translates your document or even know who they are.

  2. Pingback: Beware of your dictionary, especially if it’s a legal one - Legally Yours from Spain | Machine translation |

  3. Pingback: Truce on bilingual dictionaries - Legally Yours from Spain

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