The 5 Reasons why asking your bilingual colleagues to translate documents for you is a recipe for disaster

So your matter needs a document to be translated. I bet your first thought is: which colleague speaks [insert relevant language]?

Why do I know this? Because it was through doing translations as a trainee in a law firm that I discovered my passion for translating. I worked for an international law firm where many of the employees spoke a variety of different languages. One of the first things we had to do during our induction was to complete a form asking us about the languages we spoke and our level of proficiency. This information was put onto a database that was accessible to everyone in the law firm. I would frequently receive emails asking whether I could help translate documents in my language combinations. When trainees and juniors were asked by senior lawyers or partners, especially from their department, they almost never said no because they didn’t want to look bad in front of the relevant partner (after all, their future in the firm felt unsecured). The funny thing is that during the induction, many exaggerated their level of proficiency in a given language and later regretted this.

In this post, I want to share the 5 reasons why asking a colleague to translate a document internally is rarely the best solution.

  1. It costs more – In my post about pricing, I demonstrated why it is often more expensive for a document to be translated internally. This alone should convince you to outsource. But if you still have some resistance to the idea, read on.
  1. Your colleague may not be competent – I saw highly intelligent colleagues, who were great lawyers, curse in desperation as they struggled to translate a document. Translation requires skills, such as (i) basic writing skills (some lawyers are not the best writers), (ii) reorganising a sentence so it reads naturally (in my experience, bilingual lawyers translating internally often will use literal translations for fear of missing something) and most importantly (iii) knowledge of the other country’s legal system and legal terminology. The third skill is the one that lawyers tend to struggle with most. A legal translator who specialises in law will have received training and/or done sufficient research to know the differences between given legal systems and to have developed translation solutions, as well as having a network of other legal translators to consult over any tricky term. It is possible that your colleague will not know that a court decision may be translated differently depending on which court has made it, for example. Or, they may be at loss as to how to translate common law concepts such as “case law” or “trust” in a language with a civil law tradition. During my time working in an international law firm I even witnessed colleagues in non-legal, support roles being asked to translate documents. For example, a French lady who organised events for a department was often asked to translate French documents for that team just because she happened to be sitting in the department. Occasionally, she was asked to translate from French to English, which was not her native language. Of course, I was always willing to help her out as I enjoy a good translation puzzle and it took me back to my trainee days. However, the point remains that legal translations should only be undertaken by those with the required competence to do so.
  1. You can be sure to stress out your colleague – Lawyers translating internally are often asked to record their time as non-billable. This puts more pressure on them as they want to meet their monthly billing target to build up their hours for their yearly bonus. Often, this means working overtime to compensate, building up exhaustion, which can affect the quality not only of their translations but also, more crucially, their legal work (as attention to detail is the first thing that is compromised when you are tired).
  1. Another late night! – Even if your colleagues are allowed to bill some time for the translation, they still have to do all their own billing work without the having the ability to change their own deadlines. More often than not, the translation job does not count in their workload for the partner they work for, especially if the request came from another department.
  1. Forget about team bonding after this – I saw many colleagues become resentful at having been asked to translate a document. They would start complaining about the colleague who had asked them to do the translation, avoid that particular person in the future, feel unappreciated and really hate their day. The danger here is that if a bilingual colleague is asked repeatedly to translate documents this could impact on their morale and affect their career.

So my advice is to outsource the translation and let your colleagues do what they do best: be a lawyer in their area of expertise.

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