A survey of 130 lawyers and translators about translation style

The idea for our survey developed from the notion that translations are always an interpretation. We move from one language to the other, from one jurisdiction to another, and even from one style of legal writing to another. So we translators must actively choose how we word our translations. This is what we mean by register (or style).

We believe that both Spanish and French legal language tend to be more complex and archaic in register. English, we feel, has evolved such as through the Woolf Reforms in the UK and movements such as towards plain language or clarity. Compare for instance a Spanish contract or court judgment with one from England and Wales.

This survey was a first step to open a discussion on this topic. Myself and Maeva Cifuentes presented these results at the Mediterranean Editors and Translators Meeting (MET) in October 2018 and then developed it into a workshop for the Chartered Institute of Linguists (CIOL). We thank the 130 translators, lawyers and translation buyers who completed our survey, as well as MET, Lisa Agostini and Yada Yada for the podcast.

For a quick summary, listen to our podcast:


Breakdown of respondents

Translators specialising in legal translation were the main group in our survey (40%), followed closely by translators not specialising in legal translation but who sometimes translate contracts (35%). We were pleased to have a reasonable number of lawyer/translators (9%) and lawyers (2%) although would have liked more. Translators working in another field made up 12% of the sample and, finally, other legal professionals made up 3%.

While the numbers of each group are not proportional or likely to be statistically significant, we do believe they give a good indication of how each group chooses to word their translations.

Translator specialising in legal translation (40%) 53
A translator not specialising in legal translation, but sometimes translates contracts (35%) 46
Lawyer and translator (9%) 12
Lawyer (2%) 2
A translator working in another field (12%) 16
Other legal professionals (3%) 4


The questionnaire contained ten short questions and two open-ended questions. The choice of questions was limited just two options in order to get a rough split of decisions. Understandably this led to some pushback from people who would have chosen neither option. The translations were taken out of context too, apart from a brief note that these were taken from a contract translation. As many reported, the purpose of a translation is key and many of the key translation decisions will stem from knowing that purpose. Below, we report the findings on six questions which we believe were of most interest. The whole questionnaire can be viewed here.

Date format

Unsurprisingly, the vast majority chose to use the standard short date format and would not re-write the date in words. We consider that writing out the date is unnecessary and certainly wouldn’t increase readability.

Capitalising defined terms

Interestingly, responses to this question were a 50-50 split. Translators specialising in legal translation were more likely to use all-caps for defined terms to match the Spanish version.

Number doublets

Most translators chose not to remove a number doublet if the source contained one. This is perhaps a prudential move given that many translators would not feel comfortable removing them and some clients may feel concerned if they are removed. We note that it may be worth removing them especially in cases where a client needs the translation very quickly and the translation will be used simply to understand the source content, as opposed to using the translation in a dispute.

Shall and language of obligation

While this question didn’t strictly test whether translators use ‘shall’ (which would have been a better test), we think it does still invite an interesting discussion. ‘Shall’ is widely regarded as the best verb for language of obligation (in the sense of ‘a party has a duty to do something’), even by the more modern drafters. We did, however, have several people who refused to answer this question because they have a personal or company policy to use the present tense or ‘must’ rather than ‘shall’.

Recasting sentences

Overall, two thirds were in favour of rephrasing the sentence. Occasionally a client may want a more literal rendering such as if the original Spanish contract is being disputed. However, we agreed with the majority that rephrasing did not change the meaning and did add to clarity.

Splitting sentences

Over three-quarters were in favour of splitting the long sentence into two sentences. Spanish or French sentences can often reach 100-150 words in length so splitting a longer sentence into two or three shorter sentences can aid the reader. This can often (but not always) be done without changing the meaning. This question received slightly less responses (92%), probably because it took longer to read.

Thoughts on drafting language

The final section contained two open-ended questions and the full set of responses can be read in the dataset. We received over 3,000 words of comments and analysed attitudes towards plain legal English or more traditional drafting styles.

Next steps

In 2019, we plan to develop this research further through workshops. We are organising an afternoon workshop for the CIOL Translation Division on Saturday 19 May in London and invite you to join us (click here for more info and registration). The day is aimed at legal translators and will feature talks by Sue Leschen in the morning. We are also considering a second stage to ask different translators to translate the same document so that we can perform comparative analysis on their drafting styles.

For now we have limited the work to contract translations, although we also believe it would be interesting to look at translations of legislation and judgments. Maeva and myself are both practising translators with limited time for research. Please contact us if you would like to get involved, or you can also download the full dataset below.

For more, please see Part 2, the Further Reading section or our earlier article Putting on the (legal) style: should translations use modern or traditional drafting? (© ITI Bulletin 2018).