The State of Legal Translation in Canada: Bridging the Gap

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In Canada’s diverse and multilingual landscape, legal translation plays a crucial role in ensuring access to justice, communication, and effective legal processes. However, many people fail to realize that the country is currently in the grips of a linguistic crisis, namely a major shortage of qualified legal translators. This situation has far-ranging implications for the quality of legal translations in Canada. As the demand for competent legal translators continues to rise, the issue is further compounded by external factors, such as the emergence of machine translation and generative AI tools, as well as legislative requirements.

The legal translator shortage in Canada

Canada’s linguistic diversity, with its two official languages (English and French) and many others spoken across the country, makes access to skilled legal translators a must. These professionals are essential to bridging language gaps in legal documents, court proceedings, and various aspects of the Canadian legal system.

However, the shortage of translators who are up to the task of working in this demanding translation specialization has resulted in significant challenges. Translated legal documents often contain inaccuracies or flagrant mistakes, potentially jeopardizing the rights and interests of individuals who rely on these translations. The consequences of this extend to courtrooms, immigration proceedings, and various other legal contexts, where the risk of misunderstandings and misinterpretations is high.

Some root causes

When it comes to the shortage of legal translators in Canada, it’s important to understand the factors that have contributed to this predicament. According to the Translation Bureau of Canada, the demand for legal translation in Canada is steadily increasing, primarily due to the surge in immigration and refugee status applications. These cases often require judicial review in the Federal Court, which places additional pressure on the need for accurate and timely legal translations.

Administrative tribunals across the country have also been hiring more commissioners and members to expedite case hearings and render more decisions each year. While this is a positive development in terms of reducing delays, it places an additional burden on the already scarce pool of legal translators.

The aging legal translation workforce is also a contributing factor. According to a survey of 190 legal language professionals conducted in summer 2020 by Marie-Hélène Girard, Assistant Professor and Academic Program Coordinator of the Graduate Diploma in Legal Translation, 40% are age 55 years or over, and more than 68% are closer to retirement age than they are to the start of their career. The steady trickle of retirements over the next decade or two will only serve to further erode this country’s legal translation knowledge base.

Responsible use of machine translation and AI tools in the legal context

In response to this ever-increasing demand, stakeholders in the legal translation market (public institutions, private corporations, translation agencies, and freelance translators) may turn to neural machine translation (NMT) or generative AI (genAI) solutions for legal documents. While these tools have many translation-adjacent benefits for language professionals, it’s essential to understand the risks

associated with automatic (or machine) translation in the legal context. Legal documents are highly sensitive, and any translation errors or inaccuracies can have far-reaching consequences, such as invalidating a judgment or jeopardizing the legal system’s integrity. The importance of human validation of machine translation in this context is paramount, and this is a quality control measure that can be provided by trained legal translators, who are subject matter experts in both language and the law.

Legislative challenges

To compound the challenges, Bill C-13 on official languages proposes that precedent-setting decisions must be available in both of Canada’s official languages simultaneously. Again, according to the Translation Bureau, this places even more pressure on the already overtaxed team of legal translators, who are expected to deliver high-quality translations in a shorter timeframe.

In the wake of Quebec’s Bill 96, the shortage of legal translators affects the volume of documents to be translated by causing significant bottlenecks and delays. With limited certified translators available who are qualified to translate legal texts, the workload per translator increases, slowing down the translation process. This can lead to a backlog of documents and hamper the timely execution of the bill’s provisions.

The GDLT: an ideal solution

Recognizing the urgent need to address the dearth of qualified legal translators in Canada, McGill University’s School of Continuing Studies offers a Graduate Diploma in Legal Translation (GDLT). This fully online program, introduced in 2020, is designed to provide aspiring translators with the necessary skills and knowledge to excel in the challenging field of legal translation. By equipping learners with the expertise to translate legal documents accurately and effectively, the GDLT plays a key role in enhancing the quality of legal translations in Canada.

The GDLT offers a comprehensive curriculum that covers the specific challenges and nuances of legal language. Students learn to navigate the intricacies of legal terminology, ensuring that translations maintain the legal integrity and intent of the source document. The program also fosters a deep understanding of the legal systems in both Quebec and Canada, allowing graduates to offer translations that are legally sound and culturally relevant.

As a result of this program, Canada gains a pool of competent legal translators who are well prepared to meet the rising demand for their expertise. These translators can work in various legal settings, including courts, law firms, immigration agencies, corporations, and government bodies, contributing to the overall quality and reliability of legal translations in the country.

Navigating the path forward

The current state of legal translation in Canada shines a light on the need to proactively tackle the shortage of qualified professionals. McGill University’s School of Continuing Studies is doing a commendable job in this respect by offering the Graduate Diploma in Legal Translation, equipping students to meet the growing demand for quality, reliable legal translations, now and in the future.

About the Author

Ann Marie Boulanger is a lecturer in the Graduate Diploma in Legal Translation at the School of Continuing Studies. She is a certified translator (OTTIAQ) and owner of Traduction Proteus Inc. She is also the co-founder of LION Translation Academy, which offers business, technology and language training workshops for translators.

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