What does it mean to work with a Foreign Client?

When a company works with foreign clients that speak English poorly or not at all, it can create uncertainty, misunderstanding and a barrier to perform and achieve the legal service your company needs. These situations occur very frequently in the field of law with criminal, probate, corporate and family law where there is substantial involvement of documentation, negotiations or trial cases.

The person that does not have knowledge or ability with the English language either verbally, in written form or reading could be your client or your witness. They may have a foreign background such as European, Asian, Latin American, African, or Caribbean and speak any of the 7000 languages that exist in the world - that's right, 7000 languages! Your client is a unique person shaped and influenced by language and by the culture they left behind, and all these factors will influence the type of communication you have with him/her and what skills you use in order to get to know the person better.

There are many verbal and non-verbal cues that Americans do not understand about foreign cultures. For example while you are explaining something to a client you may ask him if he/she understands what you just said and the client responds "yes"; well, that doesn't mean that he/she understands. With this gesture what the person means is that he or she would like you to continue with the conversation so that they can fully and completely understand your point.

Cultural differences could lead to miscommunication. For example, looking at a person from an Asian cultural background directly in the eye is disrespectful, and therefore the Asian person will look and focus at a different point or object other than your face.

These examples are just a few of the many cross cultural communications factors that both clients and legal representatives could miss. On one hand we have foreign nationals with no formal education and who are not very familiar with the American culture in many aspects. On the other hand we have Americans, many of whom may not have experience in dealing with the limited communication skills of limited-English speaking clients. Being aware of all these cultural differences as well as realizing that there are also language barriers will create a much more comfortable situation for all parties involved.

Working with Legal Staff:

Many law firms hire a paralegal or a staff member that speaks another language in addition to English. This could help the firm in many aspects when the client needs quick results such as making an appointment, leaving a message, or receiving important information. When it comes to interpreting for a complicated subject matter, this could be a double edge sword due to the fact that the staff member may not be trained and prepared to interpret for more serious legal situations for the client. For instance, if you hire a bi-lingual staff member, and you are thinking of using that person for translating documents and interpreting your legal needs, think twice about this and be very careful. This decision could lead you to encounter serious problems for both your client and the firm.

Sometimes people that are descendents of foreign nationals have not had formal training in the language they have grown up speaking in their homes. They have learned the language in their house speaking with their parents, brothers and sisters but they do not have a formal education in that language in order to have good linguistic skills for reading and writing. This is not meant to imply that everybody who learns a language at home is not an adequate interpreter, but this is meant to raise awareness of this possibility. If you decide to use a person to interpret for you, make sure that person has a formal training and knowledge of the subject he/she is dealing with so you and your client can avoid any confusion and adverse results.

There is also a tendency to use the clientís resource to help out with the case. The client could have a child or other adult to help him/her with documents or acting as an interpreter. This action can create problems for the parties involved. For example, imagine that the case is related to domestic violence. By using the clientís resource to interpret, you cannot be sure that this individual is not personally involved in the case or whether they may omit questions or answers being discussed. The person being used as the interpreter may lack formal training that can result in them answering questions about the case or giving you answers before checking with the client. Some clients may want to use a child as the interpreter. Children are not appropriate interpreters for most situations. Emotionally it is very difficult for children to be in the position of such responsibility, not to mention a childís lack of vocabulary and understanding.

Using Experts:

The best solution when a company is involved with a non-English Speaking client or with cases that involve legal documentation or with services in the international arena is to use a professional language expert. As mentioned earlier, a bi-lingual staff member that has basic language skills or some language knowledge cannot provide reliable translation or interpretation with legal testimony and documentation.

There are two types of language experts; translators who translate written documentation from English into another language, or vice-versa, and interpreters who listen to spoken words and interpret those words verbally into another. An interpreter communicates in both ways and directions while translators work in just one direction.

Many people who are not very familiar with the field don't know how to distinguish between the two types of languages experts. In addition, many are also not very familiar with the fact that professional language experts are very committed to their field and that their skills require a great deal of training. These professionals are familiar with verbal and non-verbal communication, including vocabulary, local expressions, customs, culture and awareness, etc.

The complexity of the projects and how your company interacts with clients will determine the type of language expert your institutions needs. For sure you will need somebody very familiar with all aspect of both cultures (American and target culture) and with as many skills as that person can offer to your company. Do not try to save money by hiring somebody that you are not sure about. Be prepared to do your homework and get the best you can get, in the long run you will be thankful.

Remember people from Spain use different expressions and vocabulary than people from Mexico, Venezuela, Puerto Rico or even Argentina. The language is the same but the context and meaning of the expressions sometimes are different. This situation is very similar to what Americans may encounter with British, Australians or South Africans when each culture uses their own expressions and writing styles. For example, a good friend of mine is an American citizen working in London for a well-known worldwide financial magazine. This summer when my wife and I visited her in London, she told us when she started writing for the magazine, she encountered some opposition by her publisher and her boss because of the writing style she was using at that time. For her it was very natural to write the way she always did, however, that style did not quite fit for the British market. How do you explain that? She has a Master in Journalism from a well-known school in England! In time, she started learning about what the magazine editors were looking for and adapted herself to the needs of that market. Not an easy task, but she has managed to achieve this.

Hiring translators:

As soon as you see foreign documents coming in your direction you should consider hiring a translator as your first priority. Since the translation process takes time, starting with the translation process itself, the proofreading and editing, and the layout, we don't recommend waiting until the last minute. Remember to distinguish between someone who is fluent in a language, and have great language skills, however, may not be a trained translator.

Working with a translator means just that; "working with the translator and sharing with them." Make the translator part of your team; inform him/her about the case, the legal and factual issues. Have a conversation with the translator, explain to him/her your expectations about the case and give him as much information he/she needs so the information becomes familiar and the interpreter is prepared for everything.

Using Interpreters:

When you go to court involving a case with a limited-English client or witness, you will need an interpreter. The court will often provide interpreters, but you may also want to select your own interpreter who is specialized in the subject matters that your case is about. It will be helpful as well if you are able to provide some background information ahead of time for the interpreter so he/she can be prepared and study the appropriate vocabulary and be ready for your case. It is preferable to select an interpreter who has experience as a court interpreter, and is certified if this certification exists in the state your are practicing. Make sure the interpreter is given breaks at intervals during their work so that they stay focused and sharp. If the proceeding will be long, you may also want to hire two interpreters who can take turns during the trial.

Final Tips

  • Try to avoid using jargon or idiomatic expressions that donít always translate well
  • Keep your sentences short and stop after two or three phrases while using an interpreter
  • Speak slowly and clearly
  • Either ask the limited-English speaking client or witness to repeat back what they understood to make sure accurate communication has taken place
  • You may want to provide a written short summary of your discussion to the limited-English client or witness, in their own language if possible
  • Explain your role, the interpreter's role, and how the legal process will work so your client or witness understands what will take place
  • Make sure anything that requires a signature is translated into that person's language

Select your language experts with care, and follow the tips we have provided for you above, and you and your clients will be pleased with the finished product.

We at Multilingual Planet always consider these questions:

Who is your audience? Are people well trained about the subject matter? Is the reader an engineer, lawyer, doctor or rather a layperson that has to know the information but who doesn't have technical background? Which Spanish is the most appropriate? From Mexico, Argentina or Spain? What is the advantage of using language professional A versus B for our client? What kind of tone do you want to use - formal, informal or rather a more colloquial tone? Your company should choose a translator or interpreter with experience in the subject matter you are working with.

Multilingual Planet and its staff of professionals can guarantee you and your organization full expertise in all services we provide. Our goal is to help and assist companies to break barriers whatever the case is with foreign languages. Give us a call to discuss you needs, we'll be happy to provide you with an achievable solution.


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