Dec 17, 2021

The Risks of Mistranslating Legal and Medical Documents

4 min read

Legal and medical documentation plays a critical and often unseen role. Our lives depend on the occasions that require these documents—as when filing a workers’ compensation claim or receiving medical treatment.

For a growing number of people who live in the United States, there is a need to translate their documents so that they and the professionals working with them can understand everything necessary.

And as medical and legal business has life-altering consequences, translations in these realms are particularly delicate.

While translation mistakes can have amusing results, they can also have severe repercussions for the people, providers and businesses involved.

Why Some Fields Require “Specialized” Translation

Specialized translation is a translation that requires special insight that isn’t considered general knowledge for translators. Medical and legal documents require specialized translation because a translator needs a thorough understanding of the fields’ concepts and vocabulary.

In niche subjects, translating gets even trickier.

Some words might not have direct translations, and translators need enough field expertise to be able to translate them regardless, without changing the meaning.

Other words may have direct translations but different connotations depending on the culture. A translator has to be able to first recognize this and then adapt the message to portray the meaning accurately.

Both fields are also challenging to translate because their concepts and terminology adapt and change often. The law varies by location at the local, state and international level and is still updated all the time. Old medical practices phase out and new diagnoses come in.

Additionally, translations need to be exact due to the sensitive nature of law and medicine. Small mistakes can be just as dangerous as large ones—and harder to notice. For example, words that appear to have subtle differences in everyday language, like “light” and “mild,” could be crucial to differentiate in a medical setting.

The translator also needs to be familiar with the tone, standards and conventions of legal and medical documents.

Risks of Mistranslating Legal Documents

Types of legal documents that may need translating include:

  • Business contracts
  • Trusts and wills
  • Financial statements
  • Employment records
  • Case summaries
  • Legal briefs
  • Disability applications
  • Witness statements
  • Court depositions
  • Birth certificates
  • Marriage certificates


As you can tell, individuals and businesses can experience a wide range of losses when legal documents are mistranslated.

People may lose more than money if incorrect information results in false rulings. Meanwhile, business contracts with imprecise translations may result in legal accountability you weren’t aware of and wouldn’t have agreed to if you did.

Mistranslation can also result in loss by invalidating a document. Businesses may even face accusations of intentionally mistranslating a document with malicious intent.

If you bring the matter to court or are taken to court, you lose more time and money fighting these battles.

In the reverse situation, when you’re already in court, errors found in translated documents can result in a mistrial.

In all cases, a business has its reputation at stake because mistranslations are unprofessional. The mildest risk involved is the cost and time associated with retranslating the document

Risks of Mistranslating Medical Documents

Types of medical documents that may need translating include:

  • Medical history (such as past diagnoses, care records and allergies)
  • Family medical history
  • Medication history
  • Medical directives
  • Prescription labels
  • Consent forms
  • Post-discharge instructions


You could imagine the possible dangers if any of these were incorrect.
Medical care is unique to each individual; their particular injury, body and medical history all play a role in treatment. For this reason, the proper translation of all medical documents is necessary.

Without, patients may receive lower-quality care than they deserve, including incorrect diagnoses and treatments. If the wrong treatment in and of itself doesn’t harm the patient, the delay before they get what they actually need—if they ever do—can place their health and life in jeopardy.

Moreover, patient consent forms with errors can confuse the patient and result in misinformed consent or an unwillingness to concede.

When it comes to mistranslated medical documents, the emphasis is typically placed on the risks the patient faces because, in some ways, they have the most to lose. That doesn’t mean businesses don’t face threats as well.

Any service or institution that partook in a patient’s mistreatment as a result of mistranslation may be held legally accountable in the way of court hearings, prison time, fines, loss of license and loss of reputation.

In regards to workers’ compensation, poor healing can impact the return to work process and extend the length of a claim. Inaccurate documentation of medical treatment may also result in legal issues and claim complications.

How to Protect Yourself

Many medical providers and claims management professionals don’t provide specialized translations, opening themselves to the risks above. Some try to use translation apps and software, but these are often unsuccessful at translating legal and medical language.

If you work in medicine, law or workers’ compensation, we highly suggest protecting yourself and your business by hiring a skilled human translator or service.

When doing so, check that they have the proper training as well as years of experience not just in translation but in your field. Some translation providers have certifications that further their ability to work securely in your field. At iLingo2, for instance, we are certified by HIPAA, FedRamp, ISO and AICPA SOC on several accounts.

Investing in translation will help you protect yourself and your patients in the long run.