Blog post at Letters Blogatory, entitled, “Dueling Translations,” expresses surprise/concern over how both parties in an ultra-high stakes international litigation matter “actually submitted dueling certified translations of the Ecuadoran appellate court’s decision (Chevron’s is here [link no longer exists], the Lago Agrio plainitffs’ is here [link no longer exists]).” The post questions this as a waste of time/money:

Really? Dueling translations? I know that Randy Mastro and James Tyrrell are top lawyers at major law firms, and that this is extremely high-stakes litigation, but I would like humbly to suggest that the two of them sit down for a beer summit and see if they can find some way to reduce what has got to be the awe-inspiring litigation budget.

I disagree. He/she who controls the language can control the case. The following spring to mind:

1.  Whenever the other side in a case submits a translated document, I almost always move to strike it unless the translator has attached a declaration/affidavit regarding the translation. Even with that, I virtually always have someone on my side confirm that the translation is accurate. About 85% of the time the translation is “accurate” but about 99% of the time, it has been translated in a way that favors the side doing the translation. This needs to be pointed out to the court. Just by way of example, there are languages where the same word can be translated either as “shall” or as “should.” Those are two very different meanings.

2. Finding a good translator for depositions is very difficult. In Seattle, there is a Russian translator who everyone knows is fantastic and it is pretty common for both sides in a case to agree that she will be the only interpreter for the entire case. I know of no such translator in any other language here. I once had a case where the French translator was so bad that I was pretty much able to nullify anything at all harmful my Swiss client said at her deposition, simply by pointing out how bad this translator had done overall. It was not so much that the translator’s English was so bad (he was French) it was that it was his first job translating at a deposition and he simply did not know what his role was supposed to be. He did not realize that legal translation means translate, not help with the questions or the answers.

3. I had another case which involved depositions of around 8-10 witnesses from the PRC. The other side was taking these depositions and they flew all of the witnesses to Hong Kong for deposition. The other side also flew in a court reporter all the way from New Zealand. But their big mistake was using a Hong Kong based interpreter whose first language is Cantonese, not Mandarin. She was terrible.

As I always do for depositions where the deponent speaks a language other than English, I brought along someone both completely fluent in the deponent’s language and someone I completely trust to watch over the translating. In this case, it was my co-blogger Steve Dickinson. The other side brought along a Chinese speaking attorney as well. What ended up happening is that both parties essentially reached an agreement that whenever either side had a dispute regarding the translator’s interpreting, they could object, at which point Steve and the Chinese lawyer would seek to reach an agreement. If an agreement could be reached, the correct/better translation would go on the record. if no agreement could be reached (which was surprisingly seldom) we would defer the argument for the court. All this meant that each deposition took probably twice as long as it would have taken had the other side brought in a decent interpreter.

I could go on and on, but you probably already have gotten my drift. Bottom line, the translation matters.

What do you think?

For more on the impact of the language/translation chosen, and for why we draft most of the contracts in Chinese for our American clients doing business in China, I urge you to read “China OEM Agreements. Why Ours Are In Chinese. Flat Out.” To grossly summarize that post, we figure that if you are going to end up before a Chinese judge you are going to want to give him or her a contract that he or she can understand. If your contract is in English, the Chinese court will use its own translator to translate it into Chinese. This means you are not going to have any influence on what it is going to say nor will you even know what it is going to say until you have sued.