Q. My client from Athens doesn't speak English. I don't speak Greek. But her son speaks both languages and, until recently, served as my "liaison." Now, they're no longer on speaking terms, and I feel "lost in translation." What should I do now?
A. It is tough enough to convey complex legal concepts to those with a firm command of the English language. Frustrated with a litany of legalese, a client who has lived her entire life in America may complain that her lawyer's language is "all Greek to me."
Attorney-client communications are exponentially harder when neither speaks the other's language. While the Rules of Professional Conduct don't require you to be multilingual, Rule 1.4 nonetheless requires that we "explain a matter to the extent reasonably necessary to permit the client to make informed decisions regarding the representation."
This gets risky when your explanations are filtered through members of your client's own family. Unlike certified translators, relatives may have an emotional or financial interest in the information being conveyed, or a bias which may skew the translation. Since it's all Greek to you, you would have no way of knowing what information may be lost in translation, embellished, or not translated at all. Indeed, it's entirely possible that the son has given you instructions against the wishes of your client.
When we forgo the expense of retaining qualified translators, we forgo the protection that a disinterested intermediary may provide. Clients often complain that their lawyers never explained certain facts to them, or failed to communicate sufficient information before taking action. This is particularly true of lawyers who relied on the "free" translation services of relatives who may later lend credence to these complaints.
If you are representing a client of limited means, it may be difficult to retain a translator at client expense. If you nonetheless assume the risk of such complaints, you should, at a minimum, have a retainer agreement competently translated to reflect the client's approval of an intermediary who may facilitate your representation. Either way, the troubling reality remains: When you must rely on others to communicate with your clients, you will always face a greater challenge.