Lost in translation Spanish legal services are tricky

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Imagine yourself walking into a consultation with an attorney and receiving the following advice: "We're going to file a renuncia of the impedimento of three years that is currently against you, in which we’re going to have to prove a penuria extrema for your U.S. citizen family or risk being deportado."

Would you walk out of that consultation empowered with the necessary knowledge to handle your legal matter?

The significant rise in the Hispanic population in Michigan has recently led attorneys to brush up on their high school or college level Spanish in order to better communicate with, and market themselves to, Spanish-speaking clients. However, the nuanced nature of the legal field and the significant importance of most legal matters should caution organizations and individuals from seeking attorneys with little more than a base level understanding of the language. Instead, if Spanish-speaking skills are required for a particular legal matter, organizations and individuals should keep several criteria in mind.

Ensure the attorney actually knows Spanish. This self-evident principle is all too often overlooked. As is the case with any language, being able to hold a casual conversation in Spanish is very different than being able to effectively communicate legal advice to a client. In other words, an attorney's Spanish vocabulary may be acceptable, even good, but what about their legal vocabulary? I have personally seen many attorneys who, when faced with technical legal terms, simply altogether avoid the Spanish language term or use anglicism’s, a word or phrase in English borrowed by another language. For example, I often hear attorneys refer to the term felony as “felonía” — an anglicized word that doesn't exist in the Spanish language. The correct translation would be “delito grave,” which I have never heard used. Consistently avoiding the correct translation of legal terms will significantly increase the risk of the substance of the message being lost in translation.

One of the easiest ways to verify whether an attorney possesses the requisite language skills is to review their CV and confirm that they have previous experience generating work product in Spanish, such as through internships in a Spanish-speaking country or organization, study abroad programs in Spanish-speaking countries, or other experiences that require the use of Spanish at a professional or academic level.

Avoid the use of automated translation software to create work product. Whether it's Google Translate or some expensive translating software, organizations and individuals should request that attorneys avoid using translation software as much as possible. If its use is unavoidable, the final work product should be reviewed by a qualified translator or someone with the requisite language skills. While proofreading sounds like common sense, I have seen some egregious translations that could have been avoided by having a second pair of eyes review them. Among the worst translations I've seen from automated software are the following: BOT (acronym for Board of Trustees) was translated as “Banco de Tailandia” (Bank of Thailand), and OED (acronym for Office of the Executive Director) as “Oficina de Disfunción Erectil” (Office of Erectile Dysfunction). In both instances, the mistakes were part of the final communication that the organization sent out to its stakeholders.

Similarly, automated translation software will often miss the context of a specific term. For example, in an affidavit used to support an asylum application, the software translated the Spanish word “barra” as bar, an accurate translation under most contexts. However, the accurate translation in this particular circumstance was “gang.” What the individual was trying to communicate was that her husband was a member of a barra, a violent soccer gang, not a member of a barra, an establishment that sells alcohol. Had this mistake not been caught in time, the asylum application would have been significantly weakened by a simple one-word mistake (asylum laws have not yet recognized alcohol consumers as a protected class).

In the unlikely scenario that you are unable to locate a Spanish-speaking attorney who specializes in your field of interest, secure the attorney that best fits your needs regardless of their language skills and focus instead on a well-qualified professional translator. But be careful — these, too, vary in quality, so make sure you use local resources to obtain referrals. One can easily call the West Michigan Hispanic Chamber of Commerce or the Hispanic Bar Association of Michigan to request this information. Both are great resources that will help connect you with reliable and well-qualified professionals.

Michigan has plenty of attorneys that can offer legal services in Spanish of the highest quality. Organizations, individuals and the legal community as a whole should take the necessary steps to ensure clients do not have to settle for anything less.

Luis Avila is an associate at Varnum LLP’s Grand Rapids office. Fluent in Spanish and English, Avila is on the International Human Rights Committee of the State Bar of Michigan.

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