In a global economy with increasing language diversity, attorneys, paralegals, and other legal professionals are running into more interpreting and translation needs. Here’s a checklist of some important translation and interpretation information for the legal community:
Understand how culture affects legal cases
Cultural differences affect court interpreting and translation. This will be a running theme in this article. Here’s an example: In the United States, the legal concept of "no contact" has been misinterpreted by people from other cultures to mean no physical touching. In the American legal system, the "no contact" provision is the same as protection from abuse and protection from harassment orders which means the person must move out of the house and have no communication with the other person. It might be easy for an untrained or uncertified court interpreter to assume the person understands the legal meaning of "no contact" and neglect to make certain that person understands. Of course, this is just one of many U.S. legal concepts that may seem perfectly clear to someone raised in the United States but mean something quite different to a non-native navigating the U.S. justice system.
Another example affected Hmong men and women involved in Minnesota dissolution proceedings. The U.S. process differed greatly from the process the Hmong practiced in Laos. In Minnesota, custody decisions are made based on the best interest of the child. To the Hmong, the question in child custody cases is not which of the parents would better care for the children but how the identity of the children would be better preserved. The practical effects of the Hmong system benefit the men more than the women because Hmong culture is patrilineal.
PRO TIP: Avoid assumptions. Always define and explain legal terms. When working with professional interpreter services, they will be able to assist you in understanding such cultural differences.
Be aware that state law often conflicts with tribal customs
A Portland, Maine lawyer described a time when a man from Sudan came to his office to divorce his wife because she had left him. The man wanted the lawyer to draw up legal papers turning the house the couple owned together over to him and custody of their children to him. When the lawyer said he couldn’t do that and tried to explain how state law in Maine worked, the Sudanese man got frustrated and left. He came back the next day with an anthropology textbook from the 1950s that showed, in black and white, the customs of his tribe, which said when a woman left her husband, she just left and he got everything.
In our increasing multicultural nation, attorney/client relationships often face cultural barriers like this one. If you work with a client from another culture you may have to ask more questions to understand your client’s personal experiences with another legal system.
Recognize the dangers of global communication
Legal professionals in global firms are in a dangerous position. Today it's commonplace for anyone, virtually anywhere in the world, to communicate effortlessly and within seconds with anyone else. For the most part, geographical distances have been eliminated. But in the legal world, it's not always a good idea to take advantage of the speed and spread of today's instant communication.
The most successful multi-nation legal firms take the time to communicate well or they don’t communicate at all. If you want to represent your firm or practice well and successfully communicate a message across cultures or countries, you first must be sure you use language that will connect well with the intended audience. Neglecting, ignoring or not knowing the customs and culture of the audience is a danger. Court interpreters, attorneys, and others in the legal profession will tell you that providing justice requires cultural competency.
Make every legal document in every language clear, accurate, and complete
It’s important for legal documents to be precise and complete, but it’s also important that they come across as natural and easy. Of course, no lawyer can sacrifice accuracy and completeness for clarity. How does the legal profession assure the most accurate and clear legal interpretation or translation? Professional translation agencies who work with the legal field work with specialized legal interpreters and translators who have an intimate knowledge of the culture. They often deliver higher quality work than professionals who learned the language and culture mainly in a classroom. It's not just about getting the legal documents and other words right. It's about getting the ideas and the feelings behind those words right.
PRO TIP: Be sure to work with an agency you trust who works with specialized groups of linguists. Click here for more information on choosing the right translation agency.
Test free online translation services before you use them
Part of the good news is the wealth of translation resources legal professionals have today. Look around and you'll find dozens of free online translators. But be smart. When something's free there's usually a reason. We haven’t reached the time when a machine translation can approach the quality of a professional legal translator or interpreter. Free online translation resources may be useful for a walk-in client but be extremely weary of using it beyond simple communication. Trust us, it won’t help you, your client, or the future case!
PRO TIP: Avoid machine translation in a professional environment. Translation agencies offer a multitude of language service options to support your communication needs anytime, any day.
Recognize that professional interpreting can save your legal case
Consider what happened in the Canadian Supreme Court when Justice Casey Hill was presiding. Justice Hill declared a mistrial in a sexual assault case because of poor interpreting. An expert from the United States, Umesh Passi (member, New York State Bar Association), reviewed audiotapes from the cross-examination. Umesh found the court interpreter "did not interpret verbatim, summarized most of the proceedings and was not able to interpret everything that was said on the record." Don’t let this happen to you or your clients. Make certain you have a professional courtroom interpreter who will do a quality job of thorough interpretation.
Know that English is declining as the undisputed global language
Some law firms can safely assume that creating legal documents in English will serve their clientele. However, that’s becoming less the norm. About 25 million Americans have limited English proficiency. Common Sense Advisory (CSA) says the value of English as the preferred global language is on an extended, historical decline. Particularly online, it's the non-English world that’s growing fastest. With economic growth continuing to be higher in emerging non-English markets (India, Vietnam, Brazil, Russia and others), the opportunities for non-English legal work will increase much faster than the opportunity with English-speaking clientele.
Avoid phrases famous only in one culture
In the United States’ English-speaking market there’s a phrase from a famous TV and movie series (Star Trek) that nearly every U.S. native understands: “To boldly go where no man has gone before.” But phrases like that are difficult if not impossible to interpret or translate well into other languages.
In another language, a phrase like that may sound confusing and make little sense. Good legal interpreters and translators avoid idiomatic expressions (The grass is greener on the other side of the fence; a bird in one hand is worth two in the bush, etc.) and other phrases that have little or no meaning in other cultures.
Know that some words can’t be translated.
What does a court interpreter do when there isn’t any accurate way to translate a word? The best response is to spend time describing what the word means. For example, the Spanish phrase, “Te quiero” has no easy English translation. That phrase is a way to tell someone you care about them. It’s more than an "I like you" but less than an "I love you." It’s important to have an understanding that it may take more or fewer words to express what is being said. Don’t be thrown off by how long or short the interpretation is.
Consider outsourcing your interpreting and translation needs
To assure the best possible match between your legal translation or interpretation need and a professional language service, always consider services outside your legal practice. Outsourcing allows you to continue to do what you do best – represent your client’s legal interests. Outsourcing also allows you to hire translators and interpreters with deep knowledge of the language and customs of the client you are representing. A Spanish speaking paralegal may be great for new client intake and scheduling but is most likely not the best option for a full interview. How can you be sure that your paralegals Spanish is at a full professional proficiency?
PRO TIP: Save yourself time, stress, and money – leave interpreting and translation up to the professionals.
Check any language services company’s qualifications
If you go outside your legal practice for language services, hire a translation or interpretation firm with a proven track record in legal work. Don't base your hiring decision on price alone. Find a language services company that knows not just the language and the law, but also the customs and culture of the parties involved in the case. Choose a language services company versus an individual. Hiring a company will save you time because the translation company will do the leg work involved in choosing the best legal or courtroom interpreters or translators for your needs. Be sure to ask for references and work samples!
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