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What do financial and legal translations have in common? Insights with translator Laura Byrne

She used to be a financial analyst for a London-based company. Today, Laura Byrne runs her own agency as a freelance translator. In an interview with SwissGlobal, she explains what it takes to do good financial translations and what they have in common with legal translations.

In financial texts, one of the main challenges I face is that financial terms in the source language often don’t correspond to just one word in the target language. For instance, Abschreibungen can mean depreciation, amortisation or impairment, depending on whether the asset in question is tangible (depreciation), intangible (amortisation) or whether the Abschreibungen are unscheduled (ausserplanmässig), in which case we call them impairments. It can be difficult and sometimes even impossible to tell from the context which form of Abschreibungen is meant. In the latter case, you need a good project manager to ask the client for you. Also, terminology and concepts are constantly changing, so I have to make sure I stay up to date.

In legal texts, there are similar challenges about words in one language not corresponding one-for-one to words in the other language and needing to stay up to date with changing laws. There’salso an additional challenge: laws and legal concepts either not existing or not corresponding to those in the countries where the other language is spoken. For instance, Germany has the concepts of “in Schriftform” and “in Textform”. These literally translate as “in written form” and “in text form” and both loosely mean “in writing”. Unfortunately, neither English nor US law have any terms that precisely correspond to these, as each concept is defined by the German Civil Code and means something subtly different from simply “in writing”. There are no perfect solutions here. In contracts, I will often refer to “in text form pursuant to section 126b of the German Civil Code” or “in written form pursuant to section 126 of the German Civil Code”, as the German Civil Code is available online in English, and lawyers can look up precisely what is meant there.

Between 2001 and 2011, I worked as a financial analyst for a London-based company specialising in the analysis of mergers and acquisitions (M&A). Researching, understanding and analysing the M&A took in-depth financial knowledge, in particular of financial statements, the various aspects of different types of acquisition and the stock market. I learned this on the job through a mixture of training and experience. I specialised in the M&A that took place in German- and Dutch-speaking countries. This involved both translating parts of the texts for use in the reports and understanding the information in financial statements, offer documents, press releases and similar sources, so that I could use it in the report. This left me with a thorough understanding of what the information in this sort of financial text means and a particular love of translating the notes to financial statements (usually the trickiest part of any part of financial report).

In early 2011, I moved to Frankfurt with my husband and switched careers to become an in-house financial translator. However, it turns out that large areas of financial translation have a lot of overlap with legal translation. For instance, a fund prospectus is both a financial and a legal document. In addition, the company I worked for offered both financial and legal translation, so the senior translators there helped me transition from largely financial translation to a mixture of financial and legal translation. This was a relatively easy shift for me, as I’d been reading offer documents, which are also both financial and legal documents, for years and was already familiar with a lot of the language and the concepts. Because I was aware that my background is far more strongly financial than legal, I also read as many of the books on legal translation that I found in the company’s library as I could. When we moved back to London in 2013, I continued to focus on increasing my legal knowledge to give me the expertise to translate an even wider range of legal texts.

Since you’ve been in the industry for such a long time, have you observed some changes or shifts over the years in terms of how translation work is done and what is demanded from a professional translator?

Deadlines have become shorter since I started in the industry. This is understandable from the client’s perspective. But sometimes it means I don’t have as much time as would be ideal, even when I’m able to give it all of my time available. This means I’ve had to find ways to work faster where this is possible or work on weekends or during the evening where it isn’t.

Computer-assisted translation tools (CAT tools) have both improved in quality and become increasingly prevalent in the industry. I don’t think I could do my job nearly as well without them, as they help me work faster and keep terminology consistent from one part of a job to the next or from one year to the next (e.g. in annual reports). They also help me find good solutions for tricky phrases or concepts that I or other translators have come up with in the past. Finally, they help me pick up errors that are easy for computers but hard for humans to spot, such as repeated words. I’m a big fan of technology, so I’ve enjoyed learning to get the most out of these.

Machine translation (MT) has also had a huge impact on the industry. Some machine translations now work really well for some kinds of sentence – especially simple sentences that have been translated many times before. A lot of agencies therefore now offer post-edited MT. If you’re lucky, this can work out cheaper and still be good enough for your needs, especially where style doesn’t matter. The problem is that a lot of people won’t be lucky. Quite often the MT is wrong but plausible enough to fool the editor into thinking it was acceptable. This happens all too easily at the speed at which a translator needs to edit it, making post-editing a stressful and sometimes difficult job to do.

Also, data security means that people are putting more effort into stopping the data they send to translators from being intercepted. For instance, jobs are now often sent via secure portals instead of by email. I also need to comply with several security requirements to keep jobs safe on my computer, including regularly changing my password.

In terms of my specialisms, International Financial Reporting Standards (IFRS) have had a huge impact on financial translation. Their adoption has made the financial statements of large corporations much more similar across Europe. Furthermore, it means there are often official translations of various accounting terms in the sense that the standards use particular words for particular concepts in English, and the various translations of EU regulations concerning IFRS use particular terms or phrases. This means I need to keep up to date with new developments in IFRS and research new terms when they come up. I’ve also needed to learn about other new concepts that have emerged and grown in importance in the financial sector over the last decade or so. I’m thinking in particular here of cryptocurrencies and the blockchain, which first appeared in 2009 with the creation of Bitcoin and have led to a whole host of new terminology and concepts.

In the legal sphere, the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), which was created in 2016, has been huge. I’ve lost count of the number of privacy policies I’ve translated since it came out. Other laws have also been created or revised in the German- and Dutch-speaking countries, but I don’t think any of them has had such a big impact on my work as the GDPR.

I have long assumed that the quality of translation is likely to drop in the future until we get sufficiently far ahead that machine translation becomes perfect or extremely close to it, assuming that ever happens.

In the current market, there’s an increasing emphasis on fast and cheap translation. Unfortunately, quality translations take time, research, knowledge, and skill. It’s much quicker to translate without any research, but the result will often be wrong. Also, highly experienced knowledgeable professionals tend not to be willing to work for extremely low pay.

The most important way to keep getting good quality translations in the future (unless/until machine translation becomes perfect) will be to carry on using good-quality, skilled human translators, give us enough time to complete the translation and pay us enough that we don’t need to find a different job to pay our rent. But because slower and more expensive by themselves are no guarantee of quality, you either need to be able to review the translations you receive yourself or find a company you can trust to seek out these good translators for you and reliably deliver good translations to you.