On the Aspects of Legal Translation
My first incursion into the field of translation was through a local Language Services Provider in San Diego, more specifically document translation into Spanish concerning family law and child custody cases for San Diego County's Child Welfare Services. I started with socioeconomic studies, and later on I also translated juvenile court minute orders, ex-parte applications, and all-county information notices for the State of California.
Throughout this time I have learned that legal translation is a profoundly specialized field. Not only is it necessary to be familiar with different legal traditions (Common law, Equity, and Statute law as sources of English law, and the Romano Germanic or Civil law of continental Europe, just to make a general distinction), but the work also demands deep cultural background knowledge of the source and target countries where the documents are meant to have a specific legal effect.
What goes on between the different legal systems?
I have learned from Anabel Borja Albi's book "El Texto Jurídico Inglés y su Traducción al Español" ("The English Legal Text and its Translation into Spanish") that a ritualistic formula to start discussing legal translation is to refer to the untranslatability of legal texts due to the lack of equivalence between legal systems. Let me paraphrase in English a 1993 quote from Hickey that one can find in the above mentioned book:
Unlike the realities of chemical elements or laws of physics, which more or less have common ground among the communities in accordance with the subject-matter's level of knowledge, the problem [of legal translation] stems from the fact that concepts, terminology, and the legal realities themselves only have partial common ground among different societies. What we mean by "partial" is that certain concepts might coincide fully (with or without differences in terminology, of course); some may exist in one society, but not in the other one, while others only have, to a certain extent, common ground in both societies."
Let a professional who has studied legal translation take care of your language needs
Following Enrique Alcaraz and Brian Hughes in "Legal Translation Explained," expert legal translators know that the selection of the best, or the most appropriate, or the most natural or effective legal term will always depend on factors such as context, traditional usage, genre, and even subgenre. This is why professional legal translators will likely evaluate the text in order to find out, not only the genre, but also the particular subgenre. For example, if you need to translate a contract, the question that I would ask next is what sort of contract (an employment contract? a sale purchase agreement (SPA)?, etc.).
The same would apply for any other kind of subgenre. Let's say you need to translate a judgement; is it a debt judgement or a divorce decree? The answers will impose limitations and govern the lexical decisions that the legal translator will make.
What is an official translation?
Roberto Mayoral Asensio provides a broad definition in "Translating Official Documents:" translations that meet the requirements to serve as legally valid instruments in a target country. I agree with Mr. Mayoral's assertion that translating official documents is one of the most personalized types of translation. Besides letting you meet your client and the recipient of your work, official translation is strongly linked to ethical considerations, which has confidentiality at its top tier.
Using the services of an independent translator has the advantage that your documents won't go through any intermediaries, thus increasing the security of your information. Furthermore, when the translator evaluates the genre and subgenre of a legal document that you need to translate, he or she can ask you questions directly, which increases the efficiency in the communication and facilitates the understanding of the context and the target audience at a deeper level.