Translate a Word, Phrase or Document

Even though Canada is a bilingual country, few people in this law office are fluent in French and it just so happens that I’ve recently had a handful of lawyers desperately needing French documents translated. None of these lawyers were aware of there being translators available online. One lawyer had a 60 page pdf document and when I told him it would take only minutes to translate it using Altavista’s Babelfish, he didn’t believe me. He ran back to his office to email the document to me only after giving me strict instructions NOT to run it through the translator until he got back. He wanted to see this for himself! I hadn’t used Babelfish for a long time and had never used it for anything more than 7 pages of text, so I thoroughly delighted in the look on the lawyer’s face when the entire document appeared, translated, in less than a minute! He was flabbergasted and, quite frankly, so was I. I just didn’t let it show. I was even more delighted when later I walked by to hear this same very animated lawyer telling another lawyer about this “magic” I’d shown him. As I understand it, he had previously been muddling through French documents with his own limited understanding and using a French/English dictionary. No wonder he was so excited!

Of course, we all know that the translations done through Altavista’s Babelfish, Google Language Tools or any of the many other web translators are very literal and less than ideal, but they still do a good enough job to provide context and usually that has been enough.

I know that many French cases are translated into English and I only use the translators for those when I’ve exhausted all other options. Now here’s my question for you. Is there something else I should be using instead of online translators when nobody here is fluent in the language of the document in question? Is there a particular translating tool that people generally prefer? Any tips or tricks?

What I found in this last translation exercise is that Google Language Tools could not manage the large files I needed to translate but Altavista’s Babelfish had no apparent limits. It translated that complete 60 page document in a snap! Google, on the other hand, cut off translating after a relatively small number of characters.

Altavista’s Babelfish and Google Language Tools are limited in language options. For languages not handled by those translating tools (I often need Hungarian and Danish translations, for example), I use FaganFinder’s Translation Wizard, which even offers translations from and to Swahili, Arabic and Urdu, and more. Those I haven’t needed but I kind of hope I do someday.

The lawyer I was working with who was so gaga over the web translators I showed him wanted to know more so I showed him how to translate whole web pages in Google. I also showed him the translator on my Google Toolbar that allows me to hover over a word and see the translated terms in the language of my choosing. I set that up for some lawyers who are studying Spanish and Italian and they’re pretty stoked about it. If you don’t know about it and if you’ve downloaded the most recent version of the Google Toolbar, go to “manage your toolbar” and add and configure the translation button for your toolbar.

Another option is to use a translation “bookmarklet” on your links bar. Go to Joe Maller: Translation Bookmarklets (Favelets) or Google’s Translation Buttons and select the bookmarklets you want.

This May 2005 article by Philipp Lenssen, Google Translator: The Universal Language, about the way Google Translator works was interesting to me.

I’m no expert on this topic and I look forward to the comments of those who have more experience than I. Teach me.


  1. It helps to have some familiarity with the language it’s coming from. On legal documents some of the basic concepts get badly mangled, and it helps to have at least glanced at the original.

    I’ve used it for decisions on the Datumschutzcentrum of some of the Lander and also to check on professional developments in Italy, Spain and the Nederlands. But before I commit myself, I think it prudent to check with a native speaker.

    On an earlier post, I referred to DNTO’s now defunct contest, Lost in Translation.

  2. Alejandro Manevich

    I second Simon’s comment. I’ve used Google and Babelfish myself many times, but one must recognize their significant limitations. For legal translations in particular, I would definitely say caveat lector. I recently was asked to translate a contract from Spanish to English; I found one of the most challenging aspects was not just finding word equivalents but also translating from one legal system (civil law) to another (common law). Even where the dictionary tells you the words are equivalent, the concepts don’t easily translate.

    When doing my own translating, I found the following site absolutely invaluable: It’s a collaborative website for professional translators, where people post translation problems and other translators give suggested solutions. It is a fantastic resource for technical terminology.

  3. See Wired at,71907-0.html?tw=wn_columns_6 for these two glorious examples:

    “Then again the face. Merrily. A teacher could be. It would remain however not for a long time, with this easily amused skepticism around eyes and mundwinkel. Strange nose.”

    That’s William Gibson, quoting a mechanical translation of a German description of himself on his blog. “Mundwinkel?” he adds. “I love it when German makes Babelfish give up,” he adds. “I love Babelfish hugely, anyway.”

    And for legal prose, see:


    Translated (by Google) into Arabic and back into English that becomes: “You do not understand that it was not that Altavista to the results of the use of such services will not assume expectations.” Wow, a triple-negative!

  4. I am a fully bilingual soon to be lawyer, and I used some of these tools for translations, but stopped soon after because the translations, especially for legal documents, are highly humorous, especially when, as the previous poster has mentioned, when translating between a civil law and common law system.

    One trick I often use is CanLII / IJCan, or even translated Supreme Court judgments on Lexum; I just do a word search in federal statutes or Quebec laws in CanLII (Because they are completely bi-lingual) and then click on the English version on the same statute or law, look for the same section or article and find the correct English version or French version of whatever legal term I am looking.

    Same logic applies for Supreme Court judgments, just replace “sections” with paragraphs and voilà…

  5. I just pressed the “translate” button on my RSS reader Bloglines underneath Vincent Gautrais’ post on the debates that will take place in his course. Here is the result: no too bad!

  6. Quality of translation is in fact Dominic not so bad (even if “forgery” and «faux» are quite different) but the strict respect of design in the translated page is really impressive.