Can legal translators be replaced by machines?

In recent months at least, it seems that machine translation, based on huge databases of sample translations (neural networks), has massively improved. DeepL is one example. Professional translators would avoid using this as their translations might be integrated into the system, which would be a breach of their client confidentiality. But I do suspect that any law firm processing a huge pile of exhibits in a foreign language and wondering which pages would be worth translating can have the whole lot rapidly machine-translated, then zoom in on the most relevant bits and have them machine-translated.

Peter Winslow, a legal translator with a penchant for Karl Kraus, has posted in a Beck Verlag forum three translations of a sentence, two of which are machine translators and the third by a human translator with to me dubious qualifications:

Nur eine der nachstehenden Übersetzungen ins Deutsche wurde von einem menschlichen Übersetzer angefertigt, die anderen zwei stammen von maschinellen Übersetzungssystemen (vor mindestens sechs Monaten). … Erkennen Sie, welche Übersetzung der menschliche Übersetzer angefertigt hat? Der Mensch ist Deutscher und deutscher Muttersprachler. Er ist Diplom-Übersetzer – sogar für die englische Sprache allgemein beeidigt und öffentlich bestellt – und gibt an, mehr als fünf Jahre Berufserfahrung als freiberuflicher Übersetzer zu haben.

Presumably most readers of this quiz will be German lawyers, and of course they will ask themselves how to know whether a translator can be relied on. It isn’t easy. Someone who has studied translation at a German university will probably have learnt little about legal translation, although you may need to show legal knowledge to be qualified to translate for the courts. It would be better to find a translator with specific legal experience or qualifications, and experience in doing legal translations. But I think one problem is that lawyers specialize, whereas legal translators tend to specialize only in law, not in a narrow area of law. They may have years of experience in a particular area of legal translation, or they may not. I hope most big law firms that do a lot of international work will have inhouse translation teams including trained translators, who will know how to evaluate any software systems used for translation. With smaller firms it is less likely.

The sentence taken as an example is “This policy defines the specific server roles required to implement the server program.” This sentence is hardly typical of legal translations.

(I am guessing, like Prof. Dr. Müller, that the second version is the native speaker of German – the answer has not yet been revealed).

One problem at the moment seems to be that agencies are using MT and the occasional sentence is quite wrong. They then require “proof-reading” from a freelance, but if only the final product is reviewed, in English for example, the error may not be evident, although the review will be cheaper than if it were compared with the original.

(With thanks to Igor Plotkin for posting this on a mailing list)

11 thoughts on “Can legal translators be replaced by machines?

  1. I suppose it’s about charging by the hour, which would become necessary if one were revising MT output by time. I write as someone who can earn a lot more charging by the line than on the basis of whatever hourly rate the market will accept. Hope no clients reading.

  2. Pingback: Can legal translators be replaced by machines? | Perry Translations

  3. I am only now seeing this. Thank you for writing about my post over at Beck. Please allow me to ask two questions, each with a quick justificatory comment.

    First, I am curious why you would think that the human translator’s qualifications are dubious? They are standard qualifications in Germany: here is a very important website in this regard:

    Second, why is the sentence cited “hardly typical of legal translations”? I work with legal departments, legal departments draft different kinds of policies (including IT policies with legal implications (GDPR, etc.)), and these policies sometimes get transalted into different languages, even English. It is only natural that legal translators get this kind of work.

  4. Thanks for the comments, Peter.
    I do know about German translator qualifications as I am one myself, I spent 30 years in Germany and taught legal translation in Bavaria, I am still qualified as a certified translator and I used to mark the Staatsprüfung. So unfortunately I can confirm that not every person qualified as a certified translator in Germany is a good legal translator. Just my opinion, I’m sure yours will vary.
    As to the text, it is simply not legal translation. Of course legal translators translate that kind of thing, but that doesn’t make it a legal text.
    I think we will have to agree to disagree on this.

  5. My pleasure. I agree that not everyone qualified as a certified translator in Germany is a good legal translator. But that does not render the qualification dubious, just as bad lawyers do not render admission to the bar a dubious qualification. These are, so it is my understanding anyway, simply minimum qualifications; they are not indicative of quality, but of the kind of bare minimum of quality one might be reasonably able to expect (emphasis on the “bare minimum”). There is a myriad of other factors that make one a good translator, legal or other. I would like to believe that we agree on this point.

    As for policies not being legal texts: I hear this view often. And I have never really understoond it. It has been my experience that these kinds of policies are very often drafted by attorneys and that they very often have their basis in statutory texts of civil law, data protection law, employment law, and so on. These texts are even referenced or incorporated into those policies often. Only a translator with extensive experience in legal translation can translate them accurately. I agree that a policy is not a court decision or a purchase and sale agreement or the like. But is that the standard by which we determine whether a text is a “legal text”?

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