"Translation is that which transforms everything so that nothing changes”: When Nobel laureate Günter Grass said that, he was talking about literature. Yet the sentiment applies equally to legal translation and interpreting, where a single word awry can completely change the outcome of a case. That’s not hyperbole. According to Rina Ne’eman, managing director of LegalTrans.com, “I was once called upon to be an expert witness in a [securities] case involving hundreds of millions of dollars that rose and fell on a single mistranslated word.” The mistake was from Hebrew into English, languages
The problem translation solves is elemental: You need to understand something in a language you do not speak. But the solution—hiring a professional linguist—is a quagmire of terminology and bureaucracy. How can an attorney wade through it all? What does a firm really need to know so translation can transform, but not change, the case? For starters, translating and interpreting are different things. Translation is written, interpretation is verbal. Linguists adept at one aren’t always skilled at the other. This distinction isn’t mere terminology; it’s a matter of law. In Taniguchi v. Kan-Pacific Saipan, Ltd. (2012), the Supreme Court ruled that translation and interpretation are distinct. For Kan-Pacific, a Hong
What about certification? For many languages and jurisdictions, there’s no such thing. Ernest Niño-Murcia is a Spanish interpreter who served on NAJIT’s board for two years, exiting this June. He says courts and government agencies, particularly those that deal with immigration, ask translators to “certify their work—which doesn’t really exist in the U.S. like it does in other places.” (Some countries require translators have a government-issued license—just like a physician, psychologist, or dentist—before they can practice.) U.S.-based certification systems exist, but they’re decentralized and might not be applicable to a given legal case. The American Translators Association (ATA) certifies translators, but not interpreters, and this certification is general—not specialized for
If your case requires an interpreter, you’re in better luck. For verbal communication, legal-specific certification is available from both federal and state courts. Niño-Murcia, for instance, is certified by the United States and by Iowa. Unlike attorneys, though, who can’t practice without being admitted to the bar, interpreters don’t need certification to work in court unless the judge mandates it. You’d better hope she doesn’t, as interpreter certification is also language-limited. Iowa certifies in 20 tongues, but federal courts offer only three: Spanish, Navajo, and Haitian Creole. Certification brings terminology problems of its own. In Kentucky, interpreter certification is available, but so is “qualification.” Depending on the interpreter, that designation could mean that certification isn’t available for the language in question, or that the interpreter started the certification process then either failed or quit. Because the same word applies to multiple credentialing levels, the only way an attorney can know for sure is to ask about each individual interpreter. Sometimes, to make matters even more confusing, certification doesn’t come from ATA or the courts. In California, Benavides says, the county clerk “provide[s] notarized ‘certifications’ of translations.”
To ensure quality and admissibility, lawyers may want to require affidavits, which Benavides says are standard given that they define a translator or interpreter’s personal qualifications when certification isn’t available. In this way, linguists are credentialed much like expert witnesses. “Court interpreters and legal translators have a code of ethics and are considered officers of the court,” Benavides says. “As with anyone providing expert testimony, the position that a translation is correct is a rebuttable presumption.” Certification, she adds, is a way to evaluate a linguist’s qualifications.
As confusing as language credentialing can be, it’s tempting to turn to Google Translate or other free online tools. Use of these can breach privilege, though, as it constitutes sharing client communication with an outside party. Such a translation could also wind up publicly visible online, as Norwegian oil-and-gas conglomerate
Free online tools do work well for “extremely general purposes,”
“Google Translate is never a good choice for