Lack of Certified Translation Can Derail Cases

Federal Courts Won’t Consider Untranslated Documents

We’ve blogged about the importance of obtaining translator’s affidavit certified and notarized by a qualified translator in order for the translated foreign language document to be admitted as evidence and about admissibility of foreign documents in U.S. litigation. English is the official language of the U.S. federal court system. As a result, all federal litigation must be conducted in English. Failure to provide certified English translations of documents written in languages other than English can cause the court to refuse to consider those documents as evidence. As the cases below demonstrate, this failure can contribute to unfavorable rulings that can prolong or doom a case.

Martial Arts Studios Battle Over Trademarks

In U.S. Soo Bahk Do Moo Duk Kawn Federation v. International Tang Soo Do Moo Duk Kwan Association, a New Jersey corporation (“the Federation”) sued a Pennsylvania corporation (“the Association”) for trademark infringement and unfair competition. Both the Federation and the Association specialized in the teaching and practice of Tang Soo Do, a Korean form of martial arts. In its complaint, the Federation claimed the Association infringed its trademark by including the Korean phrase “Moo Duk Kwan,” which translates as “martial virtue institute,” in its name.

Specifically, the Federation claimed that the phrase “Moo Duk Kwan” was coined by its founder, Hwang Kee, in South Korea in 1945. The Federation alleged that Hwang Kee chose the phrase to indicate his particular style of teaching, making it similar to a brand name that “identifies the nature and quality of the services provided by the owner.”

In response, the Association brought several counterclaims against the Federation, including that its trademark was unenforceable because “Moo Duk Kwan” is a generic phrase associated with the practice of Tang Soo Do. The Federation moved for summary judgment on the Association’s counterclaims.

Court Criticizes Document in Untranslated Korean

In its opposition to the Federation’s summary judgment motion, the Association submitted an email in the Korean language purporting to discuss the history of the “Moo Duk Kwan” phrase. The Federation moved to strike this Korean document from the record, claiming that the Association had not produced it during discovery and therefore the court should not consider it at the summary judgment stage.

Though the court sided with the Association and refused to strike the Korean document, it proved a hollow victory for the Association. The court began by noting that the email was almost entirely in untranslated Korean with scattered Japanese and Chinese translations. Calling these portions “incomprehensible,” the court cited the well-established rule that only documents in English should be considered when deciding summary judgment motions.

The court then turned to the portions of the document in English, which purported to show that there were several Japanese martial arts schools called “Moo Duk Kwan” or “Moo Duk Ken” during the Japanese occupation of Korea from 1923 to 1942—that is, well before Federation founder Hwang Kee claimed to coin the phrase in 1945. The court expressed confusion about whether these statements were supposed to be unverified translations of the Korean portions or from another document altogether. Regardless, the court rejected the English portion as an “uncited and conclusory statement of Korean history.”

“Clearly,” the court wrote, “a Word Document of unknown authorship and authenticity which selectively cites portions of records of likewise unknown authenticity in a foreign language unfamiliar to the Court is of very little probative value at the summary judgment stage.” Nevertheless, the court declined to strike the Association’s document from the record—essentially because it was too worthless to do any real damage to the Federation’s summary judgment motion.

Court Denies Summary Judgment Motion Based on English Documents

In the end, the court denied the Federation’s summary judgment motion on the Association’s counterclaims. But the untranslated Korean document played no role in its decision. Rather, the court relied on various English documents the Association submitted, including various martial arts magazines produced in the United States and published in English.

Because these magazines showed a close association between Tang Soo Do and the phrase “Moo Duk Kun” dating back to at least 1961, the court ruled that there was at least a genuine issue of fact as to whether Hwang Kee indeed coined the term in 1945 or whether it was a more generic term associated with the practice of Tang Soo Do. The Association was fortunate that it included this evidence in English in the record. Had it relied solely on the untranslated Korean document, the court likely would have granted the Federation’s summary judgment motion and dismissed its counterclaims.

Untranslated Spanish Documents Lead to Complaint Dismissal

In the similar case of Macbeg de Occidente S.A. de C.V. v. Kaloti Metals & Logistics, the court dismissed a Mexican gold supplier’s breach of contract claim against a Florida company for systematically undervaluing the quantity of gold the company purchased from the supplier. The Florida company moved to dismiss the complaint.

The supplier claimed that the terms of the contract were set out in various invoices that it attached to and incorporated into its complaint. These documents, however, were entirely in untranslated Spanish. The court declared that “it is clear, to the point of perfect transparency, that federal court proceedings must be conducted in English” and refused to consider the untranslated Spanish documents. Because the complaint lacked sufficient specificity about the terms of the contract without the Spanish documents, the court granted the Florida company’s motion to dismiss. The court did, however, give the supplier leave to refile its complaint with English translations of the relevant Spanish documents.

These cases and many others make clear that federal courts will not consider untranslated documents written in languages other than English. To avoid headaches and delays, attorneys should always secure certified legal translations from an experienced professional translator of any documents they intend to present as evidence in federal court.

Get in touch with All Language Alliance, Inc. to obtain certified translations of legal documents from Korean, Spanish, Traditional Chinese, Japanese, Simplified Chinese, French, Turkish, Portuguese, Italian, Romanian, and other languages for use in federal courts.

United States Soo Bahk Do Moo Duk Kwan Federation, Inc. v. International Tang Soo Do Moo Duk Kwan Association, Case No. 3:12-cv-00669, was decided by the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania on July 18, 2014.

Macbeg de Occidente S.A. de C.V. v. Kaloti Metals & Logistics, Inc., Case No. 12-24050, was decided by the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Florida on June 25, 2013.

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