By John O’Shea, JurTrans, Greece/UK

Building upon a strong academic background teaching several areas of law, John has run JurTrans, a successful business with focused expertise in the translation of Greek-English legal texts since 1997.

You might think that bilingual or multilingual legal dictionaries would solve a lot of the problems legal translators face, and would be vital tools. While they are an essential part of the kit, they tend to have several ‘design flaws’ which mean that legal translators actually need to use a much wider range of tools to enable them to provide the skilled service they offer as they negotiate the tricky waters from one language to another, and from one legal system to another.

So in addition to multilingual legal dictionaries, just some of the tools legal translators end up using on a daily basis are monolingual law dictionaries, online databases featuring legislation and case law, existing translations of codes, corpora, law textbooks and monographs on specialist subjects. Using these involves comparative law techniques to a certain degree.

In a recently published book Soriano-Barabino¹ argues that, “when translating legal texts, translators are faced with numerous challenges, including the asymmetry of legal systems, the relativity of legal terminology, inconsistent categorisations and classifications between the different branches and fields of law, … the challenges may be overcome thanks to the analysis of comparative law as a first step towards effective communication”.

In a similar vein, Prieto Ramos² has argued that, “even if legal translators do not need to be equipped with the jurist’s level of legal expertise, it is essential that they acquire sufficient legal knowledge in order to situate the documents in their legal and procedural context, as well as to grasp the legal effects of the original and target texts. In fact, legal translations between national systems normally entail the exercise of comparative law before any translation procedure can be applied to culturally-marked segments”.

Research − especially from a comparative law perspective − is a key part of what a legal translator does. As practitioners, it’s important to know when to set the dictionaries aside and move on to more reliable tools in search of the answers to tricky translation questions.

Let’s look at the tools in turn.

Bilingual (or multilingual) legal dictionaries

Traditionally these dictionaries have not been developed with the translator in mind. In fact two academics³ examined a large number of such dictionaries back in 2006 and found them to be lacking in several regards; most tend to be mere word lists, setting out various possible translations without much context. Thankfully as the years go by, better (electronic) dictionaries are becoming available, that provide the context needed.

This is a problem because legal systems are not mirror images of each other. Concepts, systems, procedures are all conceived of and addressed in different ways. Even countries with a common history, which come from the same legal tradition, can have major differences in their legal systems. So one country’s understanding of X may differ considerably from another country’s understanding of the same thing. Put simply, in legal translation X rarely equals Y. One of the key tasks for legal translators is to solve riddles like these, meaning it is one of the most intellectually challenging and stimulating professions out there.

It’s important to take a critical approach to bilingual legal dictionaries. They tend to be expensive and if they don’t meet the basic criteria of ‘fitness for purpose’ for the translator, they may not be worth investing in.

Key points to bear in mind are:

  • Tailored to a specific legal system. This means that the legal dictionary should flag up words used in specific ways in England and Wales that are different from the words used in the USA, for example.
  • Explicit references to legal sources and contexts. For example, the dictionary could say term X is used in the Theft Act 1968 but not in other contexts.
  • If there is a list of possible translations, each should be distinguished by referring to the specific area of law in which those terms are applicable, offering the reader some idea about how the specific term is used. It could be useful for related terms to be grouped into sections in the dictionary (say all criminal law terminology together or banking law terminology together).
  • There should be some indication of the degree of equivalence. Since legal systems differ tremendously, in many cases there may not even be any equivalence for the source term in the target language. De Groot and van Laer recommend some sort of indication of equivalence on a scale ranging from full equivalence, through approximate and partial equivalence to no equivalence at all.
  • Express mention should be made of the absence of equivalence.
  • Any neologisms developed by the lexicographer should be identified, and reasons should also be offered for the choice of neologism.
  • The dictionary should be reviewed and updated at regular intervals.4

Other important criteria are:

  • presentation on the page, or ease of use
  • reference to the corpus used to generate the dictionary
  • an indication of how comprehensive the dictionary is (i.e. how many entries it has)
  • cross-references to related terminology
  • inclusion of important acronyms and abbreviations
  • indications on the ‘currency’ of terms. For example plaintiff could be marked as old usage for the UK, possibly with some historical context and a suggestion of the more current term.

The more of these boxes the dictionary ticks, the more likely it is to be ‘useful’ to the legal translator in his day-to-day work.

What happens, you ask, when the dictionary doesn’t provide clear pointers in situations like these? That’s when legal translators need to turn to other tools at their disposal and when their skill really comes into its own.

Monolingual law dictionaries

The first port of call is probably a monolingual law dictionary, which will explain the source language term in that language. This can be useful in helping the legal translator grasp what the concept is all about, providing a starting point for identifying potential translations, or can help distinguish between the various options the dictionary suggests.

Online resources

If that doesn’t help, legal translators can turn to online databases of national legislation or case law to see how the term is used in context. Multilingual databases (such as the EU’s EUR-Lex and CURIA) can be a fabulous repository of terminology and information. Academic articles can also be a useful source of information about source language terms, and help direct the legal translator towards the target language term. Resources such as are great. Even if a specific paper isn’t online, there is always the option of directly contacting the lecturer/professor concerned to get a copy. Experience shows that they are often willing to help.


Corpora have attracted a lot of attention among academics in recent years. Yet easy-to-use, affordable corpus-building and querying software are also very useful for legal translators – enabling them to identify more than just terms, but entire phrases that have set translations, and to check ‘standard phrases’ in their own language. Dictionaries tend to be word-based or have small collocational entries; corpora allow for more complex searches of difficult-to-translate phrasemes.

Existing translations

code pnal et procdure pnalFor translators working into English, translations of law codes are often available and many are published by respected university presses. They can be a useful resource for the finer points of law. Relying on them can improve consistency, though do bear in mind that older translations may tend to rigidly follow the syntax of the source language.5

Academic monographs

For those lucky enough to be able to access a law library or who have book on wooden background with space for text, concept of knowletheir own private collection of academic textbooks and monographs, these can be vital research tools, filling in gaps in knowledge and providing a broader explanation of areas of law. It’s a good idea to build up a small collection of key works, say a general work on civil law, criminal law, civil procedure and criminal procedure, and then some more specific works on the areas you regularly translate in (say tax law). Ideally you should have works in both your source and target language. They help you build a mental map of the law in that specific area and are a useful ‘go to’ resource in times of need. One downside is that they tend to be expensive. Despite this, I’d say that they easily earn their keep on your bookshelf in the long run.


¹ Soriano-Barabino, Guadaloupe, Comparative Law for Legal Translators (Peter Lang 2016).

² Prieto Ramos, Fernando, ‘Developing Legal Translation Competence: An Integrative Process-Oriented Approach’ (2011) 5 Comparative Legilinguistics – International Journal for Legal Communication 7-21.

³ De Groot, Gerard-René and Laer, Conrad J.P. van, (2006) ‘The Dubious Quality of Legal Dictionaries’ (2006) 34 International Journal of Legal Information.

4 These 7 points are raised by de Groot and van Laer.

5 Vlachopoulos, Stefanos, ‘The translation of legal texts. To what extent can functionality be creative?’ (2013) 66 Revue hellénique de droit international 2. This article explores the translation of the Greek Civil Code into German, among other things, and looks at “syntactic fidelity”. Interestingly, the English translation of the same code takes a similar approach and employs syntactic fidelity as well.