Yes, counsel, you do have to translate that thing—at least, if you’re sending it to a non-English-speaking country.  There are a couple that don’t require translation, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t still necessary.  [Click here to see why.]

That said, getting a translation is not as simple as a Google search to find a guy who speaks Chinese.  Why?  A whole bunch of reasons—all of them potentially fatal to your ultimate goal, which is a check that your client can cash.  Always, always, always, address these issues with your translator, and if s/he doesn’t know what you’re talking about, find a different translator.

We discuss these issues in a two-part series.  Part 2 is here, and addresses physical formatting and money, inter alia.


Simple distinction:

  • Written words are translated.
  • Spoken words are interpreted.

Full stop.  These are terms of art among linguists.  You’re a lawyer.  You understand.


The destination of your translated documents has significant bearing on the flavor, if you will, of the language you’re translating into.  Geography is everything.  Bear with me here…

There is no such thing as barbecue.*  No, really.

  • There’s Kansas City Barbecue.  This is the superior form—and the subject is not open to debate.  (My blog, my rules.)
  • There’s Memphis Barbecue.  Only slightly inferior to Kansas City.  Memphis had Otis Redding, so we’ll call it a push.
  • There’s Carolina Barbecue.  A questionable technique, in which they use everything but the squeal.  Tasty nonetheless.
  • And there’s Texas Barbecue.  Yeah, their beef’s tasty, but the whole idea is abhorrent in light of the total absence of pork.  This violates the Holy Gospel of St. Arthur**, Chapter 4, Verse 12.

Point is, what constitutes “barbecue” depends on where find yourself (and to be sure, I dig on some Texas ‘Cue).  Like barbecue, languages aren’t neatly pigeonholed into single categories.  After all, look at English.  What we speak in the Midwest (again, superior) is different from that of the American South, Australia, Scotland, New England, Old England…

  • French is fairly standard worldwide, but if your documents are going to Québec, you’re wise to use a Québecois translator to localize the text according to that province’s common vernacular.
  • Dutch isn’t Dutch everywhere.  What they speak in Aruba and what they still speak in Indonesia are different, and the northern part of Belgium, right next door to the Netherlands, uses a specific dialect called Flemish.
  • Portuguese in Portugal… not the same as in Brazil or Macao.
  • How about Spanish?  Ask someone in Mexico City to tell you what a fellow from Barcelona is saying.  In fact, ask the fellow from Mexico City to pronounce Barcelona.  Mexican Spanish is different from Castilian Spanish, in both spoken and written forms.  (The C in Barcelona sounds like a soft “th” in Spain, but like an “s” in Mexico. Bar-thel-OWN-uh, or Bar-sell-OWN-uh.)
  • Chinese… we’ll get to that in a moment.  It’s more involved than a barbecue analogy can illustrate.

For your documents to be well received, you’ll want to localize them for the locality that you’re sending them to.  Not observing this seemingly inconsequential step could raise hackles on the other side.


The Chinese language has dozens, if not hundreds, of dialects.  Mandarin is the dominant dialectic group used in the People’s Republic of China (PRC), but it is spoken, rather than written.  It’s also the spoken form of Chinese that has become the most common throughout the Chinese-speaking world (and the futuristic ‘verse of Firefly, but I digress).  Mandarin Chinese is not a language to translate into (see interpretation vs. translation above).  Rather…

  • Documents on their way to Taiwan must be translated into TRADITIONAL Chinese.
  • Documents going to the PRC should be translated into SIMPLIFIED Chinese.

What’s the difference?  Well, not much in terms of cost to translate.  But the simplified form is a creature of Chairman Mao’s efforts to consolidate and standardize the language used across all of China.  Its use in Taiwan virtually guarantees that someone will be offended, and may give a Taiwan court an excuse to reject a Letter Rogatory or, eventually, decline to enforce a judgment.

With roles reversed, the PRC is less likely to take offense than Taiwan.  (An analogy: New York Yankee fans are fairly ambivalent when you discuss the Boston Red Sox.  The ire of Sox fans, conversely, burns with the heat of a thousand suns at the mere mention of the Bronx.)  Still, operate according to the destination country’s preference, lest the guy processing your paperwork in Beijing is a Yankee fan who once got beaten up outside Fenway.

Really, everybody speaks Chinese in the future.
Seriously.  Everybody speaks Chinese in the future.


Above all, don’t mess around with this subject, and don’t cheap out on it.  Just don’t.  This is the easiest variable in all of litigation to disaster-proof, and it’s the hardest to explain away when your client asks why he just lost his case.  Hire a reputable company with a track record (or at least a webpage, for crying out loud!), preferably one that hires linguists with the appropriate vocabulary expertise (legal, scientific/engineering, medical, cultural).  Don’t assign the job to Timmy the Mailroom Intern because he spent a semester in Paris, and for crying out loud, DON’T USE GOOGLE TRANSLATE.

Just because you can get a low-cost translation doesn’t mean you should.

* Don’t confuse barbecue with grilling.  Barbecue is low & slow—low temperature over many hours, primarily to make a crappy cut of meat taste good.  Grilling is hot and fast.  Again, these are terms of art.  You’re a lawyer…

**Arthur Bryant has been canonized by the Holy Church of Smoked Meats and is chief among its saints.  Calvin Trillin once called Bryant’s the best restaurant in the world.  He was wrong.  It’s the most wonderful place in the Solar System.