Editor’s Note: The author is CEO of a professional legal translation services company based in Miami.

By Marcela Arbelaez, CEO and Managing Partner, Lingua Franca Translations

In a recent federal court case in Miami, orders by Magistrate Judge Otazo-Reyes and Judge Ursula Ungaro served as embarrassing reprimands of the defense attorneys.

The orders reminded the attorneys that they must file exhibit documents in the U.S. court system in English, not in Spanish as they had. U.S. federal courts mandate foreign-language documents be translated into English. Experienced legal translators know the rules inside and out, and can help attorneys avoid this kind of faux pas.

This case and many others reveal the crucial need for accurate translations, produced by certified translators in the correct format. But how can law firms locate solutions providing this level of unimpeachable accuracy?

Legal translations

The most essential quality to seek in a translation service is the ability to handle translations involving legal terminology. It is one thing to translate one language into another, using literal translations. It is quite another to perform translations converting one language’s legal terms into corresponding legal language in English, understood by juries of English-speaking Americans.

This distinction cannot be overstated. Moving from literal to legal translations necessitates a dramatically higher threshold of experience, knowledge and skill. When translating legal terms, there is no room for error. You don’t have the latitude or flexibility to employ an “almost-correct” term. The language must be the precise translation of a legal term in one language into a legal term in another language.

That’s why it’s essential the translation service you select uses proofreaders who are also attorneys, and who can provide a vital “last layer of defense” against errors that could seriously undermine a legal case.

In their years in law school and as real-world practicing lawyers, these attorneys have honed their mastery of the arcane legal language demanded by courts of law. Finding translation services that use legally-trained proofreaders expert in the legal terms in the source language, and others expert in the target language, is essential in ensuring translations are written to the appropriate and exacting legal standards of each country.

The bottom line is that an experienced translation service recognizes legal nuances exist based on dialect, geography, culture and more, and draws on that experience to provide the required accuracy. In short, experience matters.

Discovery material and summary assessment

One of the many challenges that law firms and their clients face is the overwhelming amount of data involved in any particular case, especially when those cases involve multiple languages. That is why it is essential the translation agency chosen be capable of providing translation services involving both discovery material and summary assessment. This can ultimately determine the case strategy.

Imagine a sexual harassment case involving an English-speaking defendant and Spanish-speaking plaintiff in which perhaps 10,000 emails have to be reviewed. The English-speaking defendant’s attorneys will have to determine which of the Spanish-language emails show evidence of harassment, have relevance to the case and must be provided to the opposing attorney. The right translation service can make that process more affordable by designing tailored Spanish keyword searches and/or by reviewing the documents and creating subsets of emails it can summarize to allow the defendant’s lawyer to determine which emails must be translated in full.

The chosen emails, numbering perhaps 2,000, will then be provided to the defendant’s English-speaking attorney in Spanish.

That will necessitate the defendant’s attorney to hire a different translator to determine which, say, 200 or 300 emails the attorney wants to use in deposition, court hearings or court filings, and to translate in full into English.

Certification is key

The issue of certification is another crucial factor to consider in selecting a translation agency. American Translators Association (ATA) certification, though well respected and widely recognized, is a basic credential any translator should possess. If performing legal translation, translators should be federally certified or certified by the court. Law firms should accept nothing short of this credential.

Certified translation proved beneficial to David Milian, partner in Carey Rodriguez O’Keefe Milian Gonya LLP, on a recent case. “We needed a translation agency that could work quickly to provide accurate certified translations of the key documents,” Milian recalls. “We were operating under tight deadlines and were able to successfully present our arguments to the Court.”

Delivered in format

Also critical in your choice of a legal translation agency is assurance that the translated documents will be presented in the identical format and style of the source material. When the document is delivered, it should mirror the aesthetics, content, tone and intent of the original, but be written in the target language.

Such is especially important when translating into or from languages such as Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Vietnamese or Greek in which the characters follow a different line break format or even a different reading direction, as is the case in Hebrew and Arabic. These languages read from right to left as opposed to the Western style, which read from left to right.

Consultative Language Services vs. Translation Agency

Avoid companies that are merely transactional translation agencies, or that translate legal materials only into English. Your legal translation should be performed by agencies able to serve as adjunct member of your team, providing ongoing consultative language services into and from hundreds of languages and language variants.

In addition, the translation service should be capable of employing strategies to save time when working with very large amounts of material, as in the harassment case cited above. Seek an agency that can use key words to expeditiously scan a data base in the source language to determine which source documents are essential to a legal case. This saves the service from having to perform costly unnecessary translations.

Look as well for additional measures of professionalism, such as the drafting of a glossary for every case, designed to achieve optimal levels of consistency from one document to another.


Conduct your due diligence in choosing a translation service with the same unwavering professionalism you would any other activity, and your law firm will be well on its way to gaining additional clients and winning more cross-border disputes.