Law in Contemporary Society

Lost in Translation

-- By AdrianHernandez - 05 Jun 2022

I remember the first time I saw legalese was when I read the word “lien” on a letter my dad received in elementary school. My immediate thought was that this was probably meant something like lion since they seemed so similar. I went to the school library the next day to look up the word. I could barely understand the definition—but it looked bad. I told my dad what it was when I got home, and he got legal help. I remember going to one of the meetings and there being a woman translating in the office between the attorney and my dad. The thing is, she wasn’t translating everything either side was saying.

This isn’t the first time that I noticed my parents receiving subpar service just because they didn’t speak English. In high school, I remember having to translate the conversation between my mom and her attorney. I remember leaving and thinking “isn’t there someone they can call who isn’t a 15-year-old to do this?” Granted, part of my rationale came from annoyance. Now that I’m older I realize how unprofessional it was to rely on the skills of a high schooler to relay important information.

I’m sure that my anecdotes are not unique. What’s worst is that these experiences happened in Houston, where I would argue that it should be easier to find people who are proficient enough in Spanish to translate a legal conversation. I can only imagine how it’s even harder to translate from languages that aren’t as widespread.

The elitism of the legal field can cause so many things to get lost in translation. Even for English-speakers, the language that is used in the legal field is intimidating and confusing. As I go through law school, I am constantly looking up and adding to my cheat sheet of legal terms. Language is meant to be constantly evolving—however, the legal field continues to use the same confusing language. I can only imagine how confusing it is for bilingual children to suddenly add a third complicated language when trying to translate conversations sprinkled with Latin terms.

Even when offices have staff who can translate, they usually struggle to translate the conversation. In my previous place of employment, there was a specific level of Spanish proficiency that had to be obtained to translate financial conversations. I fear that legal offices don’t hold their staff members who are assigned to translate to the same standards.

This lack of standards can lead to a lot of issues. When a non-English speaker is telling their story, many details can be lost because the translator doesn’t know how to efficiently translate the story. There are cultural nuances that can be lost with a subpar translation. Though the words in the conversation can be translated correctly, the feelings and reasoning are sometimes lost when translated by someone who just has a superficial understanding of the language.

I think there are a couple of steps that practices can take to prevent this. The simplest one is to devote money to ensuring that they are using an official and reputable legal translation service. I’m not sure what the cost of this type of service is, but I think this is a worthwhile investment to make sure that the message of both sides is not being lost in translation. This will prevent any child who barely has a grasp of either language the unnecessary anxiety of making sure they are translating everything efficiently.

The second solution that works with the first one is not relying on staff in the office simply because they “know” a language. There are many levels of language proficiency, and all clients deserve to be assisted by someone who is comfortable enough with the language to handle potentially complex situations. This would prevent important details or instructions from being downplayed in conversation.

I think one more issue that needs to be addressed is also the type of language that attorneys use. There are some things that can be said with less complex and legal language. Though this tactic might be useful in the courtroom for intimidation—whenever it comes to talking to clients, attorneys would be able to better assist them if they used language most people use. This would probably help resolve the translation issue because a higher degree of language mastery wouldn’t be necessary if attorneys talked in intermediate English instead of legal English.

Witnessing poor translations made me realize that I wanted to be the beginning of the solution when I became a practicing attorney. In my practice, I want my clients to be able to walk away like their attorney genuinely made an effort to listen to their story and also explain what the next steps would be in a way they could understand. If I can prevent confusion and anxiety to people in the communities like the ones I grew up in, then it’s worth all the effort.

I think the most immediate one would be practicing the same words that are constantly used in a legal setting in Spanish. I shouldn’t be sprinkling in common English legal terms when a direct translation in our language exists. Once I establish my practice, I need to make a conscious effort to make sure I’m not relying on basic understanding on a language to serve as the bridge between me and my clients who don’t speak the same language. This means making sure my practice is trained to a certain level of a language if they speak it, or putting money towards adequate translation services. Every story of a client is important, and it should not be lost in translation.

Hi Adrian, thanks for your insightful essay. As a first-generation American citizen, I could relate to your account about being a teenage translator for my parents. At that age, I just did not comprehend the extent to which my family's limited English abilities could affect their life in the US. Now, as someone who has also lived a bit in Korea and who is currently being asked to review Korean/English translations in her current internship role, I'm struggling to find the right balance between the need to facilitate cross-cultural exchanges and the importance of ensuring that all translations are accurate. Still, I think our bilingual abilities mean that we have the unique potential (and obligation) to assist intercultural dialogue. - Justine Hong

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r4 - 06 Jun 2022 - 12:46:58 - JustineHong
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