Legal Translation of Discovery Interrogatories

Legal Translation of Deposition Interrogatories Argued to Support Claim for Attorney Fees

The need for legal translation services can arise at any time during civil litigation and in any kind of case. In August 2019, in Estate of Alvarez v. Johns Hopkins University, the United States District Court of Maryland addressed the issue of the legal translation of discovery interrogatories in a controversial case dating back to 1946 involving “The Guatemala Experiment.”

The Guatemala Experiment involved the United States Public Health Service conducting research experiments on more than 5,000 nonconsenting Guatemalan people by infecting them with bacteria that cause sexually transmitted diseases. The experiments were not revealed until 2010, at which time Plaintiffs brought suit for damages, but the case was dismissed in 2012.

This blog will discuss subsequent class action litigation in the case, filed in 2015. In that litigation, attorneys for the defendants claimed that the attorneys for the Spanish-speaking plaintiffs should be sanctioned and ordered to pay attorney fees for engaging in “bad-faith abuse of the judicial process.” The defendants alleged that, during discovery in the case, in addition to many other abuses, the plaintiffs’ attorneys had the plaintiffs sign “demonstrably false statements” in answers to interrogatories that the Guatemalan plaintiffs could not read or understand because they were written in English and were not translated into Spanish. In fact, three plaintiffs testified at their respective depositions that they signed the answers to their interrogatories “without any explanation, instruction, or translation.”

Despite this and many other allegations of improper conduct on the part of the plaintiffs’ attorneys, the plaintiffs responded to the allegations by asking the court to consider the unique nature of this type of international civil litigation, in which a language barrier exists throughout the course of the proceedings and for which legal translation services can play a critical role not only in what the parties do, but also in what the attorneys do to present their case.

The Unique Nature of International Litigation

Defendants’ attorneys claimed that there were “‘discrepancies’ between allegations in the Complaint, interrogatory answers, documents, and deposition testimony” that amounted to “bad faith” and “manufacturing evidence” on the part of the plaintiffs’ counsel. In response, the plaintiff’s counsel argued that such a claim was a dishonest misrepresentation of the nature of the testimony that the witnesses presented because “such discrepancies occur in all litigation.”

Even if this is true, however, such inconsistencies can be minimized with effective legal translation implemented during the process. English to Spanish certified professional translators and interpreters not only can provide clarity to the Spanish language but they also can provide cultural insights when they are particularly needed. For example, in Alvarez, the plaintiffs’ counsel noted that most of the deponents had little education and could not read or write. Plaintiffs’ counsel argued:

‘[t]here was undoubtedly an element of unfamiliarity, discomfort, and trepidation’ associated with the depositions, particularly when ‘[t]he culture in many rural areas of Guatemala is such that embarrassing personal information is not discussed publicly, particularly with members of the opposite sex, and on top of that, the language barrier is significant.’ . . .

Counsel argued that because of “the unique nature of this international litigation,” they relied on those familiar with the language and culture of Latin America.” A certified legal translator would have provided the service on which the attorneys could rely.

The Importance of Spanish Legal Translation Services

Despite the very disparate positions of the parties in this international litigation, the attorneys on both sides expressed in their respective arguments the critical need for English to Spanish legal translation services in international civil litigation, especially during the discovery stage, when taking depositions and answering interrogatories.

Defendants’ counsel argued:

plaintiffs’ counsel cannot “try to create a triable dispute of fact—and attempt to counter unhelpful deposition testimony—by offering the Court a set of interrogatory responses signed by a witness who did not see a Spanish translation, did not know the purpose of the document, did not know that his signature represented an oath as to the truthfulness of its contents … and failed to testify consistently in his deposition.”

Yet, in response, plaintiffs’ counsel noted their efforts to ensure an accurate and honest discovery process by having counsel in Guatemala conduct the interviews, arguing that “they met with [plaintiffs] in Guatemala, discussed the interrogatories, and properly drafted answers “based on information obtained during those interviews and other information in counsel’s possession.” They further noted that “verbal discussion is the only way for counsel and . . . investigators to transmit information” to plaintiffs and argue[d] that “[t]he fact that some of the [p]laintiffs may have misunderstood the instruction or even did not receive it is not a reason to award sanctions, and hardly shows that [p]laintiffs’ counsel acted in bad faith or perpetrated a fraud on the [c]ourt.”

The Court’s Decision

The court denied the defendants’ request for attorney fees. Clearly, however, counsel on both sides recognize that in civil litigation—particularly international civil litigation—it is the spoken word of the witness and the written word within the legal document on which counsel and the court rely. This case demonstrates the critical importance of employing professional legal translators and interpreters to ensure the accuracy and clarity of what is communicated to, and by, foreign witnesses during discovery.

We welcome you to email us from our website to obtain legal translation of discovery interrogatories from English to any language, including Spanish, Simplified Chinese, Traditional Chinese, and to request remote and in-person deposition interpreting services from Spanish, Norwegian, German, Khmer, Nepali, French, Russian, Arabic, Somali, Amharic, Bengali, Romanian, Polish, Chinese, Mongolian, and other languages.

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