A version of this article was published in May 2022 by Women Owned Law

Language Barriers in Legal Matters

Let’s say you’re involved in cross-border litigation with an entity in Denmark and the case will be tried in U.S. federal court, so all the trial exhibits and discovery documents must be translated from Danish into English. Or you represent a U.S. manufacturer whose workforce is primarily Spanish-speaking, and your advice to your client is to have their handbook, NDA and onboarding forms in Spanish as a best practice. Or you file a lawsuit on behalf of your client and the defendant is not English-proficient, so the summons and related paperwork must be translated into Korean. You may need to depose a witness who doesn’t feel comfortable being questioned in English. If you’re handling the estate of someone who owned properties in the United States and Venezuela, you need to know about the Venezuela proceedings. Whatever the circumstance, you’ve got a language barrier between you and whatever you need to accomplish for your case.

Whenever you need language services, you’re looking for three things:

  1. can the work be done when you need it,
  2. can it be done without breaking your client’s bank, and
  3. can you trust that the work is accurate, especially in a language you don’t understand.

The last thing a busy attorney needs is to waste a client’s time and money with work that will prove embarrassing or risk losing the case.

Overcome the Language Barrier

If you find yourself facing a language barrier, here are five tips to guide you:

  1. Don’t wait until the last minute. Legal matters are always complicated, but more so when there’s another language involved. The fact that a document needs to be translated or someone’s spoken words need to be interpreted adds another layer of complexity to an already complex situation. Start thinking about this early – and get opposing counsel to start thinking about it early – to avoid problems with lack of availability, rush translation fees, or work that is sub-par because it was done in a hurry. True, sometimes things must be done at the last minute, but it’s best to avoid this scenario if at all possible.
  2. Realize that there’s a difference between a certified translator and a certified translation. In the United States, there is no legal requirement that a translator become certified in order to translate, and many excellent translators don’t bother to do it. The lack of a certification should not deter you from engaging a top linguist with subject-matter expertise and decades of experience. What you really need is a certified translation, which is simply one that comes accompanied by a signed certificate of accuracy stating that the translator has done the work to the best of his/her knowledge, ability and belief. These affidavits are usually notarized.
  3. Know the limitations when it comes to federal- and state-certified interpreters. By contrast, there is such a thing as a federally- or state-certified interpreter, and there will be times when you need one, such as when mandated by a judge. But this is tricky. Federal courts only certify three languages (Spanish, Navajo and Haitian Creole), and at the state level most courts only certify a handful. So, if you’re being asked to provide, say, a court-certified Farsi interpreter in Florida, you won’t be able to do it. Also, be aware that a certified interpreter, whether state or federal, will command higher fees.
  4. When trial interpreting is needed, you will need more than one interpreter. This is because trial interpreting, unless limited to witness testimony, requires simultaneous interpreting – which calls for two people on hand that must switch places frequently due to the intense concentration that this work requires. Advise your client so they can be prepared for the expense.
  5. Be sure that your provider is up to the task. This applies especially when you have a very tight deadline, have dozens (or even thousands) of documents that need translation, or need them done in multiple languages (or all three). There are a great many language services providers out there with different capabilities. Be sure to use the one best suited to your needs, and keep in mind that size is not an indicator of competence. A large agency may be expensive and impersonal, and a small agency may not have the bandwidth to handle large files, complex files or multiple projects and languages at once. Look around for the right fit.

Translation is like the air in your car’s tires. You don’t think about it until you need it, and unless you have it, you can’t move forward.

Carmen Hiers is owner and managing partner of TransForma Translation Services, a Miami-based full-service language services agency, providing services in dozens of languages. You can reach her at chiers@transformaonline.com or (305)722-3827. www.transformaonline.com