The Legal Ramifications of Interpreting and Translating


The Legal Ramifications of Interpreting and Translating

By Barry Schreiber, Esq.

Barry Schreiber is the California based partner of the Israel law firm, Barry is also the Marketing and Networking Director for Allied interpreting and translating services. Barry has practiced law for over 49 years, licensed in Florida-1971, Israel-1997.

In this article, we’ll bring to light the awareness of an area in the practice of law that we, as lawyers, may have overlooked or taken for granted. Upon reading this article, you will obtain a greater understanding of those who speak languages other than English and how culture expresses in language, the uniqueness of the speaker and their knowledge of the world, as it relates to the practice of law. The information can be used in various ways: from the office to meetings and sharing life with others, whose mother tongue is not English.

Imagine yourself waking up one day, stepping out of your home, eager to start the day. You walk to the corner café to grab your morning cup of Joe, and not one word you say is understood. Flustered, you try your best to order, your hands gesturing, even animating an invisible cup to your lips. There in front of you stands the server with an expression of confusion. Then suddenly you realize, you’re in another country on a business trip and you’re ordering in your mother tongue. You shake your head embarrassed at your mistake, wishing you had an interpreter so that you can have that cup of Joe you so desperately wanted.

We take language for granted, only noticing when we travel abroad as to how paramount it is to our survival. It is how we communicate, connect, adapt, and, most importantly, how we evolve. We live in a diverse, multicultural world where the above example is someone’s everyday life.

Let’s start by differentiating translations vs. interpretations. Translators typically deal with the written word, while interpreters deal with oral communications. It is important to note that professionals in the field can do translations, as well as interpretations. Commonalities of both are conversions of one language to another. Although, those in the profession have very different skill sets. In the practice of law, you can think of translators as transactional, the written word, and interpreters as transactional and litigation, the spoken word.

Translators pay attention to detail and have extensive knowledge of the use of words in the subject language. They provide precise translation to the language translated, understanding the nuances of both languages. Interpreters, on the other hand, focus on gesturers and specific conversion to targeted words. Interpreters are knowledgeable in colloquialism, dialects, body language, and tone of voice.

These types of professionals vary in proficiency levels. Administrative certified interpreters interpret for workers compensation related work. California court-certified interpreters interpret for workers’ compensation and civil cases, and have a broader range of flexibility in interpreting. Federal certified interpreters hold the highest level of certifications. These individuals can interpret for trials in federal court and possess the flexibility to interpret in all cases.

As the world becomes more globalized, the requirement for legal interpretation intensifies. Besides the language boundaries, the distinctions in legal frameworks make lawful interpretation complex. There are nations where there is a distinct division among common and strict laws. Be that as it may, in different countries, these two laws are not isolated. English is the dominant language in business around the globe, but not all clients speak fluent English. Within the U.S. and around the world, interpreters and translators are of necessity to practice law ethically and efficiently.

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The U.S. Population speaks about 350 languages (as of 2015), and the nation has over 60 million bilingual people today. Today there are around 6,500 spoken languages in the world, with about 2,000 of those languages having fewer than 1,000 speakers. The most popular language in the world is Mandarin Chinese, with English coming in to take the next spot. Japanese and Punjabi are on the top ten with French and Indonesian.

In California, we have only 7 Arabic court-certified translators/interpreters, as opposed to the 272,485 Arabic speakers that reside in California. (According to the Arab American Institute Foundation).

Every legitimate interpreter and translator must go through a certification process. The Judicial Council of California tests interpreters and translators for initial certification. There are other certifications as well through private associations, such as the American Translation Association.

As of February 1st, 2017, there is a list of languages that require certification in the State of California, if to be used for evidentiary purposes. The list is as follows: American Sign Language, Arabic, Eastern Armenian, Western Armenian, Cantonese, Farsi, Japanese, Khmer – Cambodian, Korean, Mandarin, Portuguese, Punjabi, Russian, Spanish, Tagalog, Vietnamese.

The certification process for translators/interpreters:

Interpreters and translators must renew their certification every two years. Interpreters must have 30 credit hours of continued education for certification renewal. The 30 hours must be divided between a 15-hour session with an instructor in person and a 15-hour session online.

Culture is the most important aspect of translating. Legal translations are heavily culture-dependent. Documents from outside of the U.S. will contain the current laws and norms within that culture. This aspect is crucial to the translation process because firms are liable for inaccurate translations of documentation. Dialects, cultural accents, and definitions are critical to the field. For example, the Burmese language is a Sino-Tibetan language spoken in Myanmar. In Burmese, the word marriage "ain htaung" can be understood in English translated as "house of prison."

Law documents that need translations could range from litigation papers to contracts. In the state of California, Civil Code section 1632 states that when presenting a binding contract with a non-English speaker, the merchant is obligated to provide a translated version of the terms and conditions of the contract before finalization. Often immigration attorneys need to translate their retainer agreements into the mother tongue of the client. Attorneys should utilize interpreters in attorney-client meetings to ensure the first meeting and communication go smoothly, and both parties understand the discussion. It’s essential to use interpreters during depositions and testimonies, ensuring the information and the verbiage is accurate and fair.

The presence of certified professional interpreters can ease the anxiety of a deponent with limited English proficiency. Facilitating your law firm’s growth and improving revenue means being aware of globalization. Your firm may have to present English documents to a foreign audience. Therefore, it requires regular and immediate access to legal interpreters and translators.

Interpreters typically charge clients for a half-day or, whole day, or by the hour. Usually, translators charge per word in the document translated. Some translators charge by the page. Per word and page costs are dependent upon the language, how quick the translation is needed, and the level of technicality.

Finding and utilizing the right certified translator/ interpreter could be the difference in winning or losing your case. Focus on your practice, not on the complexities of interpreting and translating. The last words of Albert Einstein will never be known as they were spoken in German, and the attending nurse did not understand German! The world is getting smaller. The globe is shrinking. To grow commercially, businesses need to speak the languages of clients and partners located across the earth. Let’s bridge the language gap and make your words accessible to all.

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1 California Courts, Search for an Interpreter,

2 Bernadine Racoma, What is Legal Translation and What Makes it Different?, Day Translations (June 28, 2017),

3 Bernadine Racoma, How Legal Interpreting Services Will Improve Your Law Firm, Day Translations (June 26, 2019),


5 Multi-Languages Corporation, Code of Ethics – Interpreters,

6 Nina Ivanichvili, What Attorneys Need to Know About Legal Translators and Legal Interpreters, Hgexperts. com,

7 Peter Geraghty, Ethics Tip – December 2015, A.B.A. (June 7, 2019),

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