Machine Translation: Why Not to Use it for Legal Translation

Machine Translation: Why Not to Use it for Legal Translation

If you’re not already aware that machine translations are unreliable, start to familiarize yourself with the idea. While it might be convenient to ask Siri to translate something for you while exploring a foreign country, be aware that the translation might not be precise. And if you’re translating a legal document, which needs to be incredibly accurate and is also going to be technically specific, the machine translation isn’t going to cut it.

For example, let’s try translating a fairly well-known legal quote from Brown v. Board of Education in Google Translate:

“We conclude that, in the field of public education, the doctrine of ‘separate but equal’ has no place. Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal. Therefore, we hold that the plaintiffs and others similarly situated for whom the actions have been brought are, by reason of the segregation complained of, deprived of the equal protection of the laws guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment.”

Run through Spanish and back to English in Google translate, it comes out to:

“We conclude that in the field of public education the doctrine of ‘separate but equal’ has no place. Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal. Thus, we hold that the plaintiffs and others similarly situated for whom been submitted actions are, by reason of the segregation complained of, deprived of the equal protection of the laws guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment.”

Not too bad, but “for whom been submitted actions are” sounds really awkward. If you run it through multiple languages, and choose ones with no language family tree relationship, like English to Japanese to Russian and back to English:

“In the field of public education, we came to the conclusion that the doctrine of “independent but equal” from where, no. Education separate facilities are inherently unequal. Thus, because of the separation, the plaintiffs whose status is similar to that posed action believes that deprived of the equal protection of the law to guarantee the 14th Amendment, and we complained to you.”

While the whole thing is a mess, the translation “independent but equal” is particularly bothersome, since the phrase “separate but equal” has a particular meaning and context recognized by Americans.

To test another legal example, take the phrase “The contract was valid because there was consideration between the defendant and the plaintiff.” Run through Spanish and back to English, and Google translates that to, “The contract was valid because there was no consideration between the defendant and the plaintiff.” The fact that it changed the meaning to the exact opposite of the original is impressive – in a negative way.

So why are internet translations so awful? Computers can’t do what people can – read context cues, connotations, and differentiate multiple uses of words. They also tend to be confused by grammar, which doesn’t always have a direct translation. The more different the languages, the more awful the results, because grammar and cultural context, among other things, aren’t taken into account in their rather literal translations.  Computer translations are getting better all the time – even a few years ago, the English-Spanish translation would have been far more garbled – but these automated translations still aren’t up to legal standards.

This kind of literal translation is passable on the streets – it’s certainly an improvement over a total lack of communication. But if your legal case is relying on it, do you really want a translation like the one we showed above?

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About Ana

Ana L. Velilla-Arce is an attorney licensed in Puerto Rico (U.S. territory) who has a Master’s degree in Translation Studies, obtaining her English to Spanish certification from the American Translators Association (ATA).

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