Denver Bar Association
October 2009
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Taking the Pain Out of Foreign Language Documents

by Lillian Clementi

The attorney was frantic. With trial only days away, she just remembered she had to stipulate to the other side’s translations of key French documents — and the material filled several boxes. "I messed up," she said ruefully. "I simply forgot about the French."

With non-English material increasingly prominent in U.S. legal proceedings, this scenario has become more common.

The good news is that if you follow some common-sense guidelines you can handle non-English material more effectively, avoid disaster, and get the most for your translation dollar.

Plan ahead

Inventory foreign-language documents right away, especially if you don’t know what you have. With a few background documents and a quick briefing, an experienced translator can review and analyze your foreign material while you focus on other priorities.

If you are a litigator, think ahead to depositions. What documents will need to be translated in advance? Will you need to have an interpreter present? Be sure your team’s pretrial checklist gives you plenty of time to stipulate to the other side’s translations, prepare your own certified translations, and — if any of your witnesses are uncomfortable testifying in English — book a competent interpreter well in advance.

A Little Learning

It’s natural to turn to a bilingual colleague when non-English material surfaces. However, "knowing some Spanish" doesn’t necessarily qualify a paralegal or an attorney to translate or review foreign-language documents, says a former president of the American Translators Association.

Go with a pro

Bottom line: It pays to work with a professional. The ATA offers free, searchable online databases of its member translators and translation agencies at With the Advanced Search function, you can tailor your search to the language pair and subject area you need, and even specify geographical distances for in-person review.

Getting the right people is important: Some "bilingual" reviewers are a waste of money at any price. Ask for specifics on recruiting standards and the credentials of the people who will handle your documents.

Bang for the buck

Quality translation does not come cheap, but you can save time and money by thinking through your needs. To draft a reasonable budget, ask a few key questions up front.

Does all of the material really need to be translated? A few hours of review time from the right translator or a pass through the right computer translation software can help you identify the documents that matter most. Irrelevant documents can be weeded out, and less important material can be summarized in a few lines or paragraphs — saving time, translation costs, and document-handling headaches over the life of your case.

If you are managing a large litigation, it is critical to determine how much non-English material you have, and in how many languages. Using a unicode-compliant review platform to work with electronic documents, such as e-mail messages and Microsoft® Word documents, is one solid answer.

Size matters

Once you know what you have, you can develop a cost-effective strategy for review based on volume. "If I have 200 documents in a given language, I’ll likely have a linguist do a document-by-document review," says Jacoby. "If I have 5,000, I’ll have the linguist work with review software and use his or her language and subject matter expertise to help winnow the material."

Scalpel or bludgeon?

How accurate do your translations need to be? Fast and relatively inexpensive, computer translation is often useful for first-pass review, but you will almost certainly need specialized human review and translation for your most important documents. "At best, computer translation will only be about 80 percent accurate," says the vice president of corporate development for a litigation support firm based in Washington, DC, "so we want a professional translator at the table from day one. That, to us, is absolutely critical."

Eighty percent accuracy looks a lot less impressive when you realize you don’t know which 20 percent of your translation is inaccurate. For sensitive documents, a qualified human linguist is usually the best solution. "Once the material has been winnowed down," says Jacoby, "a qualified translator or native speaker with the right subject knowledge will almost certainly do a better job analyzing non-English material than a monoglot reviewer working from computer translations."

Listening for added value

A good translator also should be able to connect the dots, seeing each new document as part of a larger whole. Your documents tell a story, and if you are willing to listen, experienced linguists can help you piece it together.

Too few legal teams take advantage of this added value. To tap into it, simply provide translators and foreign-language reviewers the background documents your attorneys and reviewers are using, and keep related English-language documents with foreign material when sending it out for translation. Stay focused on the big picture, and insist that your translators do the same.

Strong relationships

Strong relationships and institutional memory generally help a law firm serve its clients more effectively, and the same is true for translation providers. In the case of the last-minute stipulations, the frantic attorney called a translator who had worked on the litigation for several years. She quickly proposed a damage-control strategy, and translators, paralegals and attorney were able to work together to complete the review in time for trial.

Surprises are inevitable in legal work, but thinking critically about your timeline and budget and working closely with qualified linguists can make your project run more smoothly. One veteran patent translator said: "Ideally, the law firm, its client, and the translator work together, forming an effective partnership that enables all of us to keep our customers, earn their respect, and enhance our professional reputations."

Lillian Clementi provides translation, editing, and document review for Lingua Legal.

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