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Documents as instruments, legal systems gaps, and the role of the legal translator

One of the areas I specialise in, which represents most of my work, is legal translation. Any type of content is written to serve a specific purpose. Web copy may be written to inform, attract, and convert visitors into customers. Subtitles are provided so that films can become accessible and understood. Phone apps are localised so that downloads and users can increase in specific markets.

Looking at content within documents, and specifically within legal documents, these normally are part of a wider process. A sworn statement serves as evidence in court. A marriage certificate can be proof for tax relief. A chat transcript can be used as evidence by the Police. Legal documents are required for a variety of areas of law: family, inheritance, property, commercial and so on.

Taking inheritance as an example, when someone dies, we assume they have left a Will. If they had assets in the UK, their UK Will applies to those. If they had assets in more than one country, they likely needed to make a Will in that other country too.

With inheritance matters in Greece being a particularly challenging area of law, clients often find themselves battling endless red tape. Many do not know that a UK Will will not apply to the Greek Estate of the deceased. Furthermore, Greek Wills are made, signed and stored at the Notary's office. By law, the Will "cannot leave" the Notary's office. This makes sharing and even translating a Greek Will an even more challenging task.

And so in the absence of a Will applicable to Greek assets, the Greek state requires proof of the closest relatives of the deceased. This is to confirm that the heirs claiming to be the legal heirs are indeed the legal heirs. In Greece, this is proven by a Greek public document known as 'certificate of close relatives'. The data for this can result from one's 'certificate of family entry/tree' in the local registry office.

Other countries, however, such as the UK, do not have such corresponding or legally equivalent documents. And if you are British, you are unlikely to be registered in a local Greek registry or to have a family status certificate, or a family entry at the local Registry, let alone a certificate of close relatives.

So what can one bring forward from the UK to Greece to satisfy the relationship proof requirement between the deceased and the heirs? A plethora of UK documents need to be generated, legalised and translated into Greek for what normally would be achieved by only one document in Greece.

Legal documents are also referred to as instruments. And that is precisely due to their several functions and ways they serve specific needs. Therefore, when translators translate legal documents are often called to look at the document as a whole. We look beyond the words, the sentences, the paragraphs, the meaning. An experienced legal translator can also see how well the document "translates" for that specific function. A well-seasoned legal translator, a true specialist, will be able to tell or voice concerns as to whether eventually, the document is going to fulfil the client's needs or if it will become void when entering a different legal system to the system of origin.

While legal translators are not lawyers, some of us have been involved in enough cross-border cases to be able to know how one system works in one country and how it works in another. Lawyers are good at knowing the law and rules and procedures in one country and even more specifically within one area of law. This makes the translator an invaluable resource that can offer insight and advice. Never as a lawyer, always as a translator.

And so in summary, the most important takeaway, yet again, is that translation is not about the words. It's about what the words are about. Translators translate meaning, ideas and purpose. And in the case of legal translation, they bridge the gap, not only between language, and culture but also between legal systems.


Vasiliki is a translator, interpreter, transcreator, blogger, consultant and director of Greek to Me Translations Ltd. She works with English, Greek and French herself and has a team of trusted colleagues who can cover other languages. The offered language services serve mainly the legal, creative, and psychometrics industries.

Vasiliki is a Chartered Linguist, member of the Chartered Institute of Linguists (CIOL), the Institute of Translation and Interpreting (ITI) and Panhellenic Association of Greek Translators (PEM). She is registered with the Greek Consulate in the United Kingdom as a certified translator and interpreter.

She holds a BA in English Language and Linguistics and Masters in Business Translation and Interpreting. As Member of Council to the CIOL and Board Member of the IoL Educational Trust she overseas and supports the organisations' strategic goals.

Being involved in her industry means often delivering public speaking and writing for industry magazines. Her mission is to help organisations and individuals achieve their goals through the power of words. Through The Translators Mentor, Vasiliki helps aspiring or young translators to overcome self-limiting beliefs, build a business mindset and achieve their highest potential.

You can follow her on LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

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The contents of this blog belong to Vasiliki Prestidge, Director of Greek to Me Translations Ltd and cannot be copied or reproduced without the prior written permission of the author.

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