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Legal document leak a cautionary tale of using online translation

The Internet-leak of legal documents that were translated using a free online service is a reminder of the risks involved with using “machine” translating for legal work, says Brampton lawyer-linguist Suzanne Deliscar.

“The issue of sensitive documents being posted online aside, the No. 1 risk is for people who don’t know the language in which they are translating a document because there’s no way of knowing whether the translation is accurate,” she tells

Deliscar comments on the issue after the Japan News published a story that detailed how a letter from a lawyer to a defendant in a criminal trial — that was translated via a free online service — had been leaked online. That information had followed news that corporate and government correspondence was also posted online through the same website, says the newspaper.

“The defendant is a Filipino woman who became the lawyer’s client after she was involved in a traffic accident in August 2013,” says the article.

The letter that was posted online contains a name that could be used to identify the woman in this case, her phone number, the date of her crash and the status of her case with the court, says the newspaper.

Deliscar says this story is a cautionary tale about using these types of translating services.

“You have to find out whether the online service you are using aggregates the information it translates,” she says. “Most of them don’t paste the document online, but the concern some people have is that they mine the translation to add to their database of translated words so the service is constantly building its terminology database.”

Deliscar says it’s prudent for users to inquire about where the document is going, how it’s being held and whether it’s being posted online.

She says there’s an ongoing debate in the translation industry about whether to use machine translation.

“The vast majority of translators do not support it," she says. "There are concerns that it doesn’t take into consideration the context and the output isn’t as good as the result from a human translator."

However, Deliscar says, there are some in the industry who believe it can be used quite effectively in conjunction with the post-editing process.

“There is a segment of the industry that does post-editing, where you translate the material with a machine and you edit the output, and that’s the final translation,” she says.

Deliscar notes that machine translation is not just available for free online; there are some apps available to buy for that purpose. But, she says, not all of the programs available are of the same quality.

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