Merrill Brink News Reviews and Opinion on Apr 1, 2015: Three Reasons to Choose Human Translators over Online Machine Translation Systems for Legal Translations

Share Article -- Firms that use online machine translations may also be placing themselves at significant legal risk due to possible breach of confidentiality.

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Firms that use online machine translations may also be placing themselves at significant legal risk due to possible breach of confidentiality.

The translation of legal documents can often be a complex and lengthy process, but it’s an integral part of international business. Some organisations balk at the time and cost associated with legal translation, and will instead submit their legal documents to machine-translation systems available via the Internet. Machine translations, however, can yield poor-quality results and can also put your company at risk for a breach of confidentiality.

There are many reasons why it’s not advisable to rely on online machine-translation systems to translate legal materials. Some of the most important are described here.

Machine Translations Are Error Prone
Although machine translations can be helpful in certain contexts such as trying to getting a gist of a large volume of documents, or help identify documents that require human translations – they rely strictly on substituting a word or phrase from the source language with its nearest equivalent in the target language.1 This word-by-word translation often results in the loss of nuanced meanings from the original text and grammatical errors in the finished product.

Machine translations of legal documents and other texts that contain long sentences are especially prone to error, because sentences made up of 25 words or more are more likely to be inaccurately translated.2 In contrast, professional human translators are skilled writers who understand the context of the documents they’re translating, and can accurately convey the meaning the author intended in the source text in their translations. They also have access to resources such as dictionaries and supporting materials to compare and choose among similar words in the target language.

Machine Translations Do Not Account for Differences in Legal Terminology and Systems Across Cultures
Errors produced in machine translations can be attributed not only to the simplistic method in which they’re generated, but also due to the machine translation system’s lack of ability to account for variations in legal terms and structures found internationally. For example, there is no clear English equivalent term for the French instruction or the Spanish instrucción, words that refer to an aspect of criminal trials common in many European countries in which English is not the primary language.3 Conversely, for certain terms, other languages often use the English version. Such is the case with common law in French and Spanish and estoppel in many European languages.4 A human translator is able to recognise these kinds of legal term variations and decide whether their equivalents in the target language can or should be used. Machine-translation systems cannot.

Submitting Legal Documents to Online Machine Translation May Constitute a Breach of Confidentiality
Firms that use online machine translations may also be placing themselves at significant legal risk due to possible breach of confidentiality. This is because whenever a party submits documents to a publicly available machine translation service found on the Internet, they are effectively sharing that content with a third party. Google, for example, states that it stores any content submitted to Google Translate for a short time, although Google will “occasionally retain it for longer whilst [it performs] debugging and other testing.”5 Furthermore, Google Translate may share your content “as necessary for [it] to provide the [translation] service.”6 Even if no human being actually sees the contents of the document, you have in effect given a copy to the owner of the machine translation system and created the potential possibility that it will be read. In contrast, a human translator has the ability to respect and abide confidentiality requirements and ensure that others will not view the documents.

As these examples illustrate, using online machine translation systems for legal translations is an ill-advised attempt to save time and money that can ultimately prove to be far more costly than the cost of engaging professional, human translators. The best approach is to partner with a language services provider that can provide translators who are native to your target countries and knowledgeable about local legal systems. This ensures that your materials will be translated with the care and accuracy that only experts—not machines—can provide. It will also protect your firm from the considerable risks associated with a breach of confidentiality.

1 Michael Mulé and Claudia Johnson, “How Effective Is Machine Translation of Legal Information?” Clearinghouse REVIEW Journal of Poverty Law and Policy, May–June 2010, (accessed December 5, 2014).
2 Ibid.
3 Enrique Alcaraz, Brian Hughes, and Anthony Pym, Legal Translation Explained (New York, NY: Routledge, 2014), p. 157.
4 Ibid, p. 156.
5 Google, “Translate API FAQ,” November 3, 2014, (accessed December 5, 2014).
6 Ibid.

About Merrill Brink® International

Merrill Brink International ( is a leading provider of complete translation and language solutions for global companies and law firms, with special expertise in serving the legal, financial, life sciences, software, heavy machinery and corporate markets. A proven leader with more than 30 years of experience, Merrill Brink offers a wide range of language solutions including translation, localisation, desktop publishing and globalisation services.

Merrill Brink is recognised in the industry for its commitment to quality and its pioneering approach of leveraging technology to reduce costs, eliminate redundant processes and accelerate translation life cycles. Merrill Brink is certified to ISO 9001:2008; ISO/IEC 27001:2005 and ISO 13485:2003, and compliant to EN 15038:2006 and ISO 14971:2007.Together, these standards provide assurance that the most stringent process and quality standards for translation are followed. Merrill Brink International is a wholly owned subsidiary of Merrill Corporation.

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