Many lawyers are bilingual. Perhaps qualifying in one jurisdiction and then moving to another, or maybe retaining their native language whilst practising in English. In many cases, this comes in useful when working with clients where English is not their first language - finally, the client has found a lawyer with whom they can speak in their native language and explain their legal problems fully. Perhaps the client has asked whether the lawyer can act as their interpreter or translate documents, saving both time and money. However, there are significant problems with a bilingual solicitor acting as an interpreter or translator for a client - both practical and ethical.
In this article, we look at some of the issues which may arise when a lawyer acts in this capacity.
Is being bilingual enough to act as an interpreter or translator?
While many lawyers may be bilingual, there is much more to interpreting and translation than simply language skills. It is understandable that lawyers might consider they will be saving their clients money, time, and difficulty by acting as their interpreter or translating documents and witness statements - but this could turn out to be a false economy.
Interpreters and translators have a very distinct set of skills and a high level of experience. Lawyers who are bilingual can communicate in two languages, but they do not necessarily have the skill to transfer important information between those two languages. Also, a lawyer who has retained their native language but practices in English may not have a legal understanding in their native language - since they may never have used legalese in that language. They may find it difficult to switch between the two languages as they rarely use their native language in a work context, or may not have the required skills to create a nuanced translation or interpretation in both languages. Furthermore, professional linguists make use of technologies and skills unique to the translation industry to ensure accuracy and speed in their translations, use of these technologies, such as CAT tools, is rare if not non-existent amongst bilingual lawyers, meaning where a bilingual lawyer attempts to complete a specialised and/or lengthy translation, it is likely going to cost them more time and money, not to mention risk to quality, than engaging a professional linguist.
In most cases, lawyers who are bilingual but not professional translators or interpreters lack the tools, understanding and skill required and could put their client’s case at risk.
When acting as a solicitor speaking directly to the client, who is interpreting?
It presents a strange scenario where a solicitor is interpreting for a client, but also asking the client questions and providing advice. It may impact how the solicitor interprets the answers or how the client answers the questions. The solicitor may also have to make decisions about when it is appropriate to interpret the client’s answers verbatim or where a simple gist interpretation is sufficient. These are matters which should be entrusted to a qualified and experienced interpreter.
Due process issues
In certain circumstances, a lawyer acting as an interpreter may interfere with due process and Human Rights. The right to an interpreter is an important part of the right to a fair trial, and a defendant must be able to understand the charges made against them and defend themselves.
When a lawyer is interpreting or translating, are they really doing the best job for their client?
When a lawyer makes the decision to translate a client’s documents or witness statement, they must question whether they are really doing the best they can for their client. As we know, the outcome of a case can come down to the smallest nuance in language; can you afford to get it wrong?
Failure to instruct an interpreter or legal translation could result in a complaint to the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) and harm your professional reputation. Even if a client specifically asks for you to translate or interpret for them, it is important to interrogate whether this is the right thing to do and clearly explain to your client the impact it could have on their case.
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