In any language money's the word

A bad translation can be as dangerous as bad legal advice, so law firms often part with large sums to hire linguistic experts.
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The Independent Online
It's late on a Friday afternoon. A City lawyer suddenly receives instructions to fly to Colombia to negotiate a mineral rights contract. His senior partner tells him the deal is vital because the new client is a multinational company rumoured to be unhappy with its current lawyers.

Accompanying the instructions is a 60-page proposal document that the lawyer must read by Monday. Unfortunately, it's in Spanish and the lawyer speaks only English and O-level French. This, says Thomas Seal, president of one of the world's top three firms of translators, is a scenario that is becoming increasingly common for City law firms competing for international business.

Mr Seal's company, Alpnet, has reported a 40 per cent increase in legal translation business in the past two years. Other translators report similar growth. In a recent case Alpnet was asked by a City law firm to translate 600 pages in two weeks. The original bill ran to pounds 22,000. Mr Seal says a quote this size is often followed by the sound of a lawyer's sharp intake of breath, leading to the judicious resubmission of only those documents vital to the case.

Jonathan Horsfall Turner is a senior international banking partner with Allen & Overy. "If you're in the middle of a transaction and suddenly you need to read a document that is critical to the transaction but is in a foreign language, then to get that transaction done quickly is very important. It helps if you can provide a client with a seamless service. But it's not always cheap."

"What lawyers forget," says Mr Seal, "is we are also providing a professional service with legally qualified translators who will also have experience of the commercial nature of the business."

Liz Lucas is managing director of RWS, Europe's largest translation company. Two years ago the company was working for half the top 50 law firms. Now RWS receives instruction from 38.

RWS translators were called in by a City firm at the start of Channel tunnel negotiations and later when the project ran into trouble. The deal served to show that even when international legal negotiations are being conducted in a language as familiar as French, some City firms still do not have a sufficient language capacity.

Mrs Lucas explains: "Lawyers have to cover their backs all the time by providing good translations. A bad translation can lose a case."

But one translator recently described City lawyers and their American counterparts as "linguistically arrogant". "The prevailing view seems to be: `if they want to do business with us, then they take it in English'," said the translator.

This is changing, Mr Seal says, but City law firms have failed to rationalise their operations in response to the recent increase in the volume of translation business they now require. "Most firms still don't have centralised resource management, so each partner [from the law firm] works with a translation company they prefer on an individual basis," he says. "It's something we have tried to talk to them about over the years."

RWS sometimes receives documents that have been sitting around in City law firms' offices for months which then suddenly need translating overnight. Mrs Lucas says: "People get really stroppy when we say we can't do it before the afternoon the next day."

She believes lawyers forget they are getting real value for money. "City law firms charge around pounds 200 an hour and we charge pounds 40, and yet we both provide equally professional people."

Jane Bush is an international lawyer working for Dibb Lupton Broomhead. She says good translators are worth their weight in gold. In a recent case she represented a multinational business in a litigation at the High Court where three-quarters of the documents needed translating. Dibb didn't want the documents to leave the office, so a firm of translators sent a team of 16 specialists to work at the firm's City office. The final bill for the translation was a five-figure sum.

Miss Bush says: "There were only about four firms who could tender for the job. The one we used was very good because they were Spanish speakers with legal experience."

Through a subsidiary company, assisting clients trading with Japan, Dibbs now provides its own Japanese translations. It also sends its lawyers on refresher courses to brush up on language skills when specific international work requires it.

Even firms with a high number of linguistically skilled lawyers, however, still prefer to instruct outside translators. Partners realise it is much more cost-effective to charge out lawyers as lawyers and not linguists.

There is also a danger that lawyers can get carried away with their own foreign language proficiency or have overstated language skills on their CV. A legal translation must convey the exact meaning. A poor translation can be just as dangerous as bad legal advice.