How to avoid life-altering legal translation errors

March 29, 2022

Translation errors can impact lives significantly, and this is particularly the case when they occur within the legal sector. For example, earlier this month, hundreds of Ukrainian refugees may have been prevented from entering Israel due to a fundamental translation error.

In this article, we explore examples of where legal translation errors have led to significant negative consequences, then share what measures must be put in place to ensure mistakes like these are avoided in the future.

Ukrainian refugees refused entry due to a translation error.

After managing to flee the horrendous events occurring in Ukraine, many Ukrainian refugees have been reported to have faced further distress at the border to Israel. Entry forms, which originally asked whether the individual had ever illegally stayed in Israel, were mistranslated when converted into Ukrainian. The translated version just questioned if they had ever previously stayed in Israel, omitting any mention of the illegal nature of the stay. Therefore, applicants who answered ‘yes’ mistakenly admitted to prior illegal visitation and were denied entry. With around ten million Ukrainians now reported to have left their homes, finding an alternative country that can accommodate these individuals could prove hugely challenging.

Did a translation error lead to Leyla Güven’s conviction of terrorism?

At the end of 2020, Leyla Güven was sentenced by a Turkish court to 22 years in prison on terror charges. Convicted of being a member of a terrorist group, the former MP and prominent Kurdish politician was detained in 2018 then later released in 2019 ‘under judicial control’ following an 80-day hunger strike.

On 9th February 2022, Leyla Güven appeared before the judge for the second hearing of the court case. Having examined the report prepared by a Turkish expert, she claimed that the audio records of the speeches that she made in Kurdish were full of translation errors. Accepting the request for additional time to prepare the defence, the judge rescheduled Güven’s hearing to 11th April 2022, where the quality of the translation of evidence may determine her future.

Google Translate cannot confirm consent.

On 11th February 2020, Corporal Mark Conrad initiated a traffic stop of a vehicle driven by Ramirez-Mendoza in Pennsylvania State. When attempting to seek consent for searching the seemingly suspicious car, he reached for his phone and Google Translate. A video recording, later reviewed in court, revealed how Google Translate turned Conrad’s question into a statement, therefore creating strong evidence for coercion and invalidation of voluntary consent. Conrad should have used a pre-printed, vetted translation of an authorised form to gain consent to search the car. Not using a credible source to gain consent violates the suspect’s rights, even if she was aware of the intended action, which, in turn, impacts further legal action.

A plague of translation errors in South Korea’s free trade agreement causes huge public embarrassment.

Back in 2011, South Korea suffered a high-profile loss of face when presenting its second version of the free trade agreement that included 207 new translation errors. This incident followed the first review earlier in the year, where the document contained so many translation mistakes that the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade had to issue a public apology. Withdrawing the revised translation had wide-reaching negative consequences, including a failure to meet treaty deadlines, lost jobs and changes in government policies.

How to ensure translation accuracy

With every word in legal translation having the potential to significantly (and often negatively) impact people’s lives and businesses, it is essential to ensure it is reliably accurate.

As demonstrated by the traffic stop case in Pennsylvania, machine translation is still not a method that can be trusted for its quality. Therefore, using a professional translation service, where human linguists with proven skill and qualifications complete the translations, is the best option.

When assessing translation providers, there are several elements that they should be demonstrating to show that they can deliver high-quality translations:

Fully qualified, native, sector-specialist translators

Translators should be native to the market into which they’re translating and specialists in the relevant subject. This specialism may be in the legal sector or a specific industry sector when files, such as company contracts or intellectual property documents, need to be translated. All translators should also hold translation qualifications to at least degree level and have proven translation experience. This expertise helps ensure the reliability of the translation.

Editing and proofreading

All translated files should be passed onto independent editors and proofreaders, who have an equivalent level of expertise, to review the translation against the source file. They will check for accuracy, consistency and adherence to the accompanying brief, referring any amendments back to the translator for approval.

Translation memory tools

Although machine translation is still an unreliable option, computer-assisted translation (CAT) tools are valuable for supporting a translator’s accuracy and consistency. One of these tools is translation memory software, which stores and organises previously translated words and phrases then provides ‘matches’ for the translator, enabling them to work with more consistency and efficiency.

Quality control process

A professional translation provider should be implementing ISO-approved quality control processes to ensure the reliability of its translation services. These processes include the stringent recruitment of translators and implementing editing and proofreading of all translated files, as well as experienced project managers carrying out rigorous internal quality assurance processes on a translation to verify its accuracy.


To find out how Mission Translate ensures quality in the provision of our translation services or discuss your next project, please get in touch with our team.

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