We can all agree that the insurance claims process can be a difficult one to navigate. Now imagine if on top of understanding policy coverages and exclusions, responding to endless requests for documents, and ensuring that all benefits are timely paid, the entire process was in a foreign language. For many Spanish-speaking policyholders – including hurricane victims in Puerto Rico, Texas, and Florida – this frightening situation is their reality. Legitimate claims can quickly go awry simply because of the language barrier between the insured and insurer.

I recently experienced first-hand the potential impact even a simple mistranslation can have on a claim. The case involved a policyholder who had sustained property damage to his home in Florida. The insurance carrier’s counsel requested the insured’s deposition, and because English was not their first language, arranged for a Spanish translator to be present. Because of certain inaccuracies with the translations by this particular interpreter, what otherwise would have been a straight-forward examination quickly became confusing – and at times borderline contentious. Fortunately, because I also speak Spanish, I was able to catch these discrepancies and explain the reasons for the misunderstanding before the situation escalated.

There were times during the deposition where the Spanish translation of the question differed from what the defense attorney was actually asking. This resulted in the insured providing testimony which seemed unrelated to the question, which would in turn confuse the opposing counsel. The attorney attempted to rephrase the question, not realizing that it was still being translated the same way. The attorney’s confusion eventually turned into frustration. The witness, believing that the attorney was insisting on asking the same question and sensing their frustration, similarly began getting defensive.

Other times, the problems stemmed from the translation of the insured’s answer. There was one instance where in response to a question the insured stated, “I’m not sure.” However, the answer was translated in English as, “I don’t know.” The discrepancy may seem harmless at first glance, but the distinction is legally significant and can have a major impact in litigation. In response to the latter, an attorney may simply move on to the next question. But if translated as the former, the attorney may seek to narrow their question or confirm what the witness does recall.

The final and most problematic issue involved an instance where an explanation was added to the question being asked. Although the question was along the lines of, “Was anyone else present at the time of the loss?” the interpreter added, in Spanish, “..like a family member? Friend?” The problem was not just that what was conveyed to the insured differed from what was asked, but also this addition could improperly influence the witness’s understanding of the question and their ensuing response. Even more concerning is the fact that it would have been difficult, if not impossible, for anyone to have noticed the interpreter’s personal comments unless they were both present at the deposition and able to understand Spanish.

What transpired at the deposition was clearly unintentional, and I am sure this interpreter either genuinely believed they were being helpful or simply made an honest mistake. It is also important to keep in mind there may not always be a perfect or exact translation to certain English and/or Spanish words or phrases, and that sometimes things can be interpreted in more than one way. However, whether conveyed in a recorded statement, examination under oath, or deposition, it is crucial that any information communicated by a policyholder be translated as accurately a possible. This is particularly true in the realm of property insurance litigation, where these statements can and often do form the basis for motions later examined in detail by a judge. Situations such as these illustrate why it is so important for Spanish-speaking policyholders to consider an attorney who is not only well-versed in this area of law, but also understands the Spanish language and can take appropriate action so things do not get lost in translation.