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Jason Dzubow on Political Asylum

Translating Documents for Your Asylum Case

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The word "translation" is derived from "trans," meaning "across" two languages, and "elation," meaning "to make your lawyer happy." Or something like that. The point is, if your translations are correct, you are more likely to win your case and so you--and your lawyer--will be happy.

If you think accurate translations are not important, please stay away from my garden.

But many asylum seekers are unable (or unwilling) to pay for professional translations, which can be quite costly. Instead, they do the translations themselves, or they use a friend who speaks "good English" (technically, anyone who claims to speak "good English" does not speak English very well). The problem faced by these non-professionals is that translating documents is not as easy as it looks.

I ran into this problem recently, when a keen-eyed DHS attorney discovered that my client's translations were incorrect. The client had submitted several translated documents when he applied for asylum at the Asylum Office (using a different lawyer). These documents included a newspaper article, a police report, and several witness letters. The quality of the translations was poor, and so we asked the client to obtain better translations. Unfortunately, the new translator embellished some of the translations. Instead of translating the documents literally, he tried to include what the writer meant (or what the translator believed the writer meant). This problem is all too common. Sometimes, I catch it, and other times, I don't. In this particular case, the DHS attorney caught the inconsistency, which--to state the obvious--is not great for our case.

Poor translations can cause real problems for asylum cases. I have at least one case where an inaccurate translation resulted in the case being denied by the Asylum Office and referred to Immigration Court (where it remains pending 3+ years later--ugh).

So how do you ensure that your translations are correct? And what happens if you can't afford a professional translator?

First, any document that is not in English must be translated into English. For each such document, you must submit a copy of the original document (in the foreign language), an English translation, and a certificate of translation (for an example certificate of translation, see the Immigration Court Practice Manual, Appendix H).

Second, the translation should be accurate. This seems like a no-brainer, but in my experience, it is not. Here, "accurate" means that the translator should--as much as possible--literally change each and every word of the original document into the equivalent English word. Some words are not easy to translate from one language to the next. Other words have symbolic, cultural or idiomatic meanings that may differ from their literal meaning (the word "jihad" is a good example). In that case, translate the word literally, and maybe include a footnote indicating the meaning or cultural significance of the word. The footnote should clearly indicate that it is not part of the translation (for example, it could say, "Translator's note:" and then include the explanation). Other times, the original document is vague or unclear. In that case, the translator should again literally translate the words, but can include an explanatory note. Sometimes, documents contain illegible words. For them, the translator can include a bracketed statement indicating that the text is [illegible].

Third, while I think it is not required, I strongly prefer that the translated text look similar to the original (or sometime like a mirror image of the original, if it is a right-to-left language like Arabic). So bold or underlined words in the original should be bold or underlined in English. If the original text has different paragraphs, the English should follow a similar format. If some words in the original are centered, or shifted to one side or to a corner of the page, the translation should do the same.

Fourth, every word of the document should be translated. For documents where that is not possible (like a newspaper where you are only interested in using one article on the page), the translator should clearly indicate what portions of the document are being translated. In this case, I prefer to highlight the original document to make clear which parts are being translated. Also, for news articles, it is important to include (in the original language and in English), the name of the newspaper, the date, the title of the article, and the author, if any. Certain documents contain a lot of unnecessary boilerplate verbiage (I'm thinking of you, Salvadoran birth certificates), and so a summary translation might be more appropriate. If you use a summary translation, you need to clearly indicate that it is a summary, not a literal translation. Whether all Judges and Asylum Officers will accept summary translations, I do not know, but we use them now and again, and we have not had any problems.

Finally, countries sometimes use different calendars and even different clocks. In this situation, I think the best practice is to translate the date or time literally, and then include an explanatory note (for example, in the Jewish calendar, today is the second day of the month of Elul in the year 5777, and so if a Hebrew document contained that date, the English translation would look like this: "2 Elul 5777 [August 24, 2017]"). Some translators include only the date in our system (and not "2 Elul 5777"), and I have never had a Judge or Asylum Officer reject that, but I still think the better practice is the literal translation + explanatory note.

A related issue is letters from people who do not speak English, including the asylum applicants themselves. If a person does not speak English, but submits an English letter or affidavit, there must be a "certificate of interpretation stating that the affidavit or declaration has been read to the person in a language that the person understands and that he or she understood it before signing." See Immigration Court Practice Manual, p. 48. "The certificate must also state that the interpreter is competent to translate the language of the document, and that the interpretation was true and accurate to the best of the interpreter’s abilities." Id.

Lastly, many asylum seekers speak English and can translate documents themselves. This is fine. However, a person should not sign a certificate of translation for her own case. So if you translate your own documents, find a friend who speaks both languages to review the documents and sign the certificate of translation.

Accurate translations can enhance credibility and help you win your case. So either find (and pay) a competent translator or - if you do it yourself or use a friend - take the time to ensure that the translations are accurate and complete. Otherwise, documents that might help your case could end up doing more harm than good.

Originally posted on the Asylumist: www.Asylumist.com.

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