Five Tips to Surmount a Language Barrier

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;  all the trial exhibits and discovery documents must be translated from Danish into English. Perhaps you represent a U.S. manufacturer whose workforce is primarily Spanish-speaking; you advise your client a best practice is to translate their handbook, NDA and onboarding forms into Spanish. Maybe you file a lawsuit on behalf of your client; when the defendant speaks Korean and is not English-proficient, the summons and related paperwork must be translated for them. You may need to depose a witness who doesn’t feel comfortable being questioned in English. Are you handling the estate of someone who owned properties in the United States and Venezuela? You’d better learn about the Venezuelan proceedings. Whatever the circumstance, you face a language barrier between you and whatever you need to accomplish for your case.

Here are three considerations when you require translation or interpretation services:

  • Can the work be completed in the timeframe required
  • Can the work be performed without breaking your client’s budget
  • Can you trust the work is accurate, especially in a language you don’t understand

All these issues are important, because the last thing a busy attorney needs is to waste her client’s time and money with inadequate work that will embarrass her in front of her client or jeopardize her case in court.

Follow these tips when  your matter’s progress is blocked by a language barrier:

  1. Plan ahead. 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 complicated situation. Start thinking about the language issue early and get opposing counsel to start thinking about it as well. You can avoid problems with lack of professional’s 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. Recognize the difference between a certified translator and a certified translation. Surprisingly, there is no legal requirement that a translator in the US become certified in order to translate; many excellent translators are not certified. The absence of 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, when work is accompanied by a signed certificate of accuracy stating that the translator has performed the translation to the best of his/her knowledge, ability and belief. These affidavits are usually notarized.
  3. Know the limitations of federal- and state-certified interpreters. By contrast, there are federally and state-certified interpreters. You may need one occasionally, such as when mandated by a judge. Note that federal courts only certify three languages (Spanish, Navajo and Haitian Creole). At the state level, most courts only certify a handful of languages. Consequently, if you’re asked to provide, say, a court-certified Farsi interpreter in Florida, you won’t be able to comply. Also, be aware that a certified interpreter, whether state or federal, will command a higher fee.
  4. Interpretation during a trial requires more than one interpreter. Trial interpreting, unless limited to witness testimony, requires simultaneous interpreting.  Due to the intense concentration that this work demands, two people take turns as interpreters, so that each may take a break and rest. Advise your client accordingly, so they can be prepared for this expense.
  5. Confirm 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 many language services providers, each with different industry specialties, language resources and capabilities. Use the one best suited to your needs, keeping in mind that size does not indicate competence regarding your matter. A large agency may be expensive and impersonal, while 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, but, unless you have reliable service providers on board with you, you can’t move forward without it.

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 [email protected] or (305)722-3827.

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