Lost in Translation? Tips for Achieving a Winning Legal Translation or Interpretation


With the growth of the non-English speaking population in the U.S., the number of cases which require translators and interpreters has increased dramatically. Has an attorney ever asked you to find a translator or interpreter at the last minute? Where would you start? Would you search the internet? Would you call a foreign language department at a local college? What is the difference between an interpreter and a translator?

This situation could happen to you--or it may have already happened. There are three kinds of language partnerships that provide support for translation and interpretation needs. This article explains the differences between the three and how to choose the one that fits your particular situation best. It is important to choose the right partnership, because the paralegal is responsible for reducing the risk of litigation due to mistranslation.

The three kinds of language partnerships for translation and interpretation are: 1) Freelance, 2) In-House, and 3) Agency.

Before exploring this topic further, note that an interpreter conveys the spoken word from one language to another, as in a deposition or mediation. A translator, on the other hand, conveys the written word from one language to another, as in an insurance policy or birth certificate.

1) Freelance Language Partnership

In the Freelance situation, you would hire the interpreter or translator and pay them directly. Working with a freelancer means that you only deal with one person (the translator) for the entire project. However, once the project is completely translated, you would also need to hire an editor to proofread the document. A proofreader is necessary because no matter how skilled the translator, there is always room for human error. Error can only be detected if another qualified person reviews the document. In some cases, freelancers use editors, so check with them ahead of time. It is also a good idea to check their references and the number of translations they have completed in the past. Keep in mind that you take on the responsibility for making sure the freelance translator is qualified.

If you use a freelancer to work on a project for a particular case, then you may want to use them for all the projects pertaining to that case. This is important because your projects should maintain consistency of vocabulary and style. Consistency of vocabulary and style not only reflect the image of your firm, they also have legal ramifications. For instance, if some documents are translated in one style by the first translator, and other documents are translated in another style by a second translator, then in court or mediation, opposing counsel might detect this inconsistency and raise concern.

Another consideration when hiring a freelancer, is that he or she works with many other clients. Therefore, in certain situations, this person may not be available to meet your deadlines or work on all your projects, especially when there is a rush request.

2) In-House Language Partnership

An In-House partnership utilizes the skills of employees already working for your company. The advantage here is that you don’t have to look for someone outside of the organization and you don’t have to pay additional money to hire a translator or interpreter. Scheduling might also be easier because you are privy to their schedule and know their availability. However, they could also have a variety of other responsibilities that prevent them from dedicating the time necessary to complete a quality translation.

There are other disadvantages to the In-House partnership. First, you must consider that just because someone speaks another language, does not mean that they have been trained to translate or interpret it. Take the common scenario of the bilingual Spanish and English-speaking person. Their native language in the home might be Spanish, and they might have learned English in school, but that does not automatically mean that they have the background necessary to complete your translation, especially in the legal field. Poorly translated materials create an unprofessional image for your firm and may not convey the intended message to the intended audience.

On the interpretation side, the interpreter should be court certified, preferably. They must be familiar with the professional legal terminology that will be used in court, otherwise intended meaning might be lost or misunderstood. Legal terms are hard enough to understand in English, let alone another language. Make sure counsel is prepared with an interpreter who understands the legal system and its vocabulary.

In summary, the In-House language partnership has its place, but only if the team has professional training and experience in translation and interpretation.

3) Agency Partnership

The third option for translation and interpretation is using an agency. An agency can provide a pre-screened pool of translators, interpreters and editors to work on your project or assignment. The delivery dates will most likely be faster than freelance or in-house delivery, because an agency will have a dedicated team working to meet tighter deadlines. Moreover, some agencies may have a quality control stage that compares the current translation with previously translated files to make sure that terminology and style are not only consistent within the file to be delivered, but also consistent with previous translations. This may ensure translation of a higher quality, at a one-time price, rather than paying separate people for each service.

The agency may ensure that you have the most specialized translators and editors working on your project. You won’t have to spend valuable time looking for specialized professionals to do your translation and editing; the agency may have already identified teams who have successfully handled similar projects in the past. Agencies will also be able to provide you with a variety of professionals (interpreters, translators and editors) in different fields such as legal, marketing, medical, and engineering that cover a variety of languages, among them Spanish, French, Korean, and Chinese.

Some agencies also have an IT department that will help you develop not only translations but also localization of websites into different languages for specific target audiences. In these instances, the agency serves as a partner for yet another service, saving you valuable time and money. If you use the same agency for translation and localization, they will be able to maintain consistency among the website and all printed materials from your firm.


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