Copywriter, technical writer, translator (FR>EN, ES>EN, IT>EN), journalist

Legal translation technology a matter of trust

Companies that file documents with the System for Electronic Document Analysis and Retrieval (SEDAR) often need to ensure they are in both of Canada’s official languages.

Document translation is expensive. Can businesses avoid this expense? After all, it’s 2019. Free translation services abound online.

Have you heard similar arguments about legal services? Most lawyers know that trusting computers to draft legal documents is not wise. Perhaps the same logic applies to translations of those documents.

The argument for human translators

Michel Bergeron put the answer in words lawyers can understand. “Law is a science of words,” said the partner and chief of linguistic services for McCarthy Tétrault LLP. “The meaning and interpretation of words is often the basis of litigation. The ‘ordinary’ and legal meanings of words are not always the same.”

He also mentioned that, while computers may one day produce usable first drafts, “(human) reviewers aren’t as likely to lose their jobs.”

In-house departments like Bergeron’s feature both translators and lawyer / revisers. When the workload demands, they may go to external language service providers like freelance legal translator Louis Fortier. Fortier had built a viable legal translation business during his legal studies. When called to the bar in 1995, he chose to hang a translator’s shingle instead.

Translator certifications

Translators often acquire certifications from organizations like:

Fortier serves as president of the Canadian Association of Legal Translators (CALT). (Irony: when we spoke, CALT’s website was not available in English. You can find CALT at, the website for l’Association canadienne des juristes-traducteurs.). While members must meet minimum standards to join, CALT does not certify translators.

Technology used during translation

Like lawyers, translators must attain some education. And, also like lawyers, translators use labour-saving technologies to improve their efficiency and accuracy.

Fortier is a big fan of document comparison tools (though not that of Microsoft Word). In one case, he was able to charge a competitive rate to translate three documents that he quickly determined were highly similar.

Computer-aided translation (CAT) tools enable translation departments like Bergeron’s to build translation memories and termbases. These are databases that CAT tools reference whenever people translate new documents.

It can take years to build a translation memory, but once it’s built, and properly maintained, it can enable what Bergeron calls “near real-time translation.” “Machine learning allows, in the long term, to build a solid foundation for a customized database where legal content has been reviewed and validated by lawyer-linguists,” he explained.

Bergeron is bullish after recent experiences with neural machine translation. “Specialized technical content, such as legal, where blocks of text come from mandatory content (laws, regulations, policies, jurisprudence, doctrine), models and templates, works better with machine translation compared to content like fiction or marketing,” he said.

“Neural machine translation provides better results from French to English than from English to French,” he added, “possibly because of the nature of French language which uses more words to describe things.” For example, legal in English can correspond to légaljuridique or judiciaire in French.

Both Bergeron and Fortier caution that what goes into a database must be reviewed, approved and validated by a lawyer/linguist. Also, Bergeron figures these databases must contain more than 10 million words for a CAT tool to provide adequate translations.

Research tools

Legal translators frequently refer to documents that already exist in both English and French. All provinces and the federal government publish laws in both official languages. Translators also use regulations and case law.

Bergeron authored the Practical Legal Lexicon (Lexique Juridique Pratique), a resource sponsored by CALT (and heartily endorsed by Fortier).

Outside the legal sphere, translators make liberal use of resources like Termium Plus, Le grand dictionnaire terminologique, SEDAR and, of course, dictionaries. “I wonder why lawyers don’t have dictionaries by their side when they draft documents,” Bergeron offered wryly. “People don’t know the meanings that they think they know. Lawyers don’t check words enough.”

Working with translators

Lawyers understand time pressure, so it isn’t surprising to learn translators want more time for their work.

Consider SEDAR filings. Bergeron finds that French documents are not 100 per cent reliable, often due to the timing pressure of filing both English and French at the same time.

“This is where machine translation will improve things in the future,” he added.

He also noted that few people read texts as carefully as translators do. “Sometimes you find errors in the English text, so we tell the original writer,” Bergeron said. “They should use us not as translators but as document specialists.”

Fortier figures learning flows in both directions. “Translators can improve too by understanding how lawyers draft their documents,” he said.

This article originally appeared on The Lawyer’s Daily website, published by LexisNexis Canada Inc.