This guest post is by Caitilin Walsh, a French/German to English translator and President-Elect of the American Translators Association (ATA). The post describes how a legal firm saved on discovery costs by partnering with a translation company.
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We’ve all seen the images on the evening news: federal agents hauling computers and file boxes into the back of a big, white van, to be potentially used as evidence in a lawsuit. Anyone who has worked in a legal firm knows that there will be a small army of people needed to inventory, number and wade through those documents to identify what will be useful if the case goes to trial. This process, known as discovery, can be tedious and costly. But it’s even more complicated when those files are in a foreign language, and the team can’t understand them enough to know whether they have bearing on a case.
A legal firm was faced with exactly this dilemma during discovery for a case where their client suspected embezzlement. Hundreds of boxes of memos and expense reports, nearly all in French, needed to be combed through to determine if funds had been misappropriated. But no one in the Californian firm spoke enough French to even begin to understand what was in the documents.
The legal firm contacted a local translation company that specializes in French. With decades of experience, it didn’t take the owner long to realize that this was a potentially huge project. It would keep just about every French to English translator on her roster busy, and would be very lucrative. But it was clear to both the translation company owner and her attorney client that fully translating all of these documents was not the best use of her resources—translators—nor of the client’s money. And it would lengthen the process considerably.
Making translators a part of the team
So the translation company owner suggested something out of the ordinary. Rather than pulling most of her translators off other projects (potentially leaving her company’s other clients in the lurch) or refusing the project altogether, she sat down with the attorney to determine exactly what they were looking for. Since much of the discovery in these types of cases is done by the law firm’s clerks and interns, it became clear that the translators didn’t need a law degree, they just needed to know what the legal team was looking for. The client was delighted: not only would they save time, but also money.
The translation company set up a method to track the document numbers, and invited its contractors to sign up for times to come into the office to read and summarize the documents. With key terms on a whiteboard in front of them, the team of translators plowed through the file boxes much more quickly than they would have been able to fully translate the documents. What’s more, they could easily set aside a stack of memos that were in Spanish for another translator called in to handle that language.
The needle in the haystack
The team read well over 20,000 pages of documents in just under two weeks, and even better, found what the client was looking for: an invoice for a luxury vehicle that had no business being charged to the lawyer’s client.
The lesson is one we can all learn from: when your company needs to glean specific information from a large volume of foreign language documents, decide up front how to make the best use of your translation budget. In this case, polished translations would have been overkill and unnecessary, and machine translation (translation done entirely by computer) would still have required a huge amount of data entry time, with a high risk that the resulting translations would have been more confusing than helpful. Working with a professional, experienced translation provider made all the difference, and created a true win-win for both the law firm and the translation company.
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Originally published in the ATA Compass under the title “Translation as a tool for understanding“. The ATA Compass is a consumer outreach blog of the American Translators Association (ATA). One of the ATA’s catchlines is: “In today’s global economy, a professional translator can make the difference between success and failure – the ATA Directory can help you find the right person“.
Caitilin Walsh is an ATA-Certified French to English translator. A graduate of Willamette University (OR) and the Université de Strasbourg (France), she currently serves as President-elect of the American Translators Association. She brings her strong opinions on professionalism to teaching Ethics and Business Practices at the Translation and Interpreting Institute at Bellevue College, and to the T&I Advisory Committee for the Puget Sound Skills Center. She tweets from @caitilinwalsh, and blogs on food and sustainability here. When not at her computer, she can be found pursuing creative endeavors from orchestra to the kitchen.