Divorce in a Second Language: 5 Tips from a Bilingual Lawyer

Going through divorce is challenging enough, but when English is not your first language the legal jargon, paperwork and process can be even more intimidating – and put you at a real disadvantage.

There are linguistic and cultural nuances sometimes lost in translation that can make the difference between winning and losing on an issue. And though many court forms have instructions in other languages, responses and any declarations that the court will read must be in English. So, in addition to the challenges that native English speakers face of learning and understanding the court process and legal terminology in English, this creates an added level of difficulty for non-native speakers.

If you’re beginning or in the middle of divorce right now, you’re probably already seeing how personal conversations are between yourself and your attorney have become. You may have already found that you are disclosing information about your marriage that you may not have even shared with close friends. Culture influences the divorce process a great deal and oftentimes greatly affects how much a client is willing to disclose, as certain topics may be taboo or too shameful for a client to discuss. This is why it is so important to work with a divorce attorney who speaks your native language. An attorney who understands the influences of language and culture can help create a space of understanding and no judgment, to ensure that you are as comfortable as possible during this process.  

While English is my dominant language, I am a native Spanish speaker and have helped many clients successfully through the divorce process. I would be honored to help you. If you register now as a Hello Divorce Starter Member (it’s free), you can request that your free 15 minute consultation be with me. If you’ve already had your consultation, and you can book as little as 30 minutes of my time here.

If you’re going through divorce right now as a non-native speaker, here are my five best pieces of advice:

1. Complete the paperwork in your own language first.

Whether you speak English fluently or not, it can be helpful to complete your divorce paperwork in your native language first, to make sure you are saying exactly what you want to say. You can then translate into English and/or use a translation service to help. I have used Trusted Translations in the past and have found them to be affordable, with good translators and quick 2-3 day turnarounds. I strongly advise against automated tools like Google Translate, because they won’t catch subtleties you’re trying to convey, or sometimes translate directly rather than reorganizing sentence structure so your message flows better and makes more sense in English. Also, if Spanish is your first language, the California Court has a great resource if you  – some of the forms are in Spanish and they have a “Self Help” center in Spanish.

2. If you’ll be making an appearance in court, ask the court for an interpreter.

In California, you have the right to have an interpreter. Depending on your county, you may need to request an interpreter ahead of time, or you can pay a fee to hire your own interpreter. (Unless your case involves domestic violence, in which case the court will always provide an interpreter, free of charge.) I recommend you take the court up on this service, even if you’re comfortable speaking in English. Legal terminology is different, it’s complicated and this is a time when emotions are running high. Having an interpreter translate can alleviate a little bit of that pressure.

3. Make sure the interpreter speaks your dialect.

Did you know there are 11 completely different Spanish variations for the English word “drinking straw?” If it can be that difficult to communicate about a vessel for drinking a Diet Coke, imagine how challenging it might be to communicate complicated court terminology.

If you’re working with a court-assigned interpreter, you’ll likely find out the day of your hearing who your interpreter will be. Arrive early at the courtroom where your hearing will be and ask the clerk or bailiff to point out your translator. If they’re not in the room, you can at least get their name and wait for them to arrive. Take a few minutes before the hearing to speak with your translator and make sure you understand each other. If you have any difficulties understanding your translator at all, raise this with the court and request a different translator. You won’t hurt anyone’s feelings by doing this. An interpreter’s job is to make sure you get a full and fair shake in court – which can’t happen if you don’t have a full understanding of what is happening.

4. Don’t be afraid to speak up.

Even if you think you understand your interpreter, if you find that once your hearing begins you’re having a difficult time understanding or keeping up with technical legal terminology, let the judge know immediately. The judge should slow down and take time to break things down into smaller pieces that are easier to digest. If you still don’t understand, say so and ask the judge to break things down further. Resist the urge to just smile and nod to avoid hurt feelings, as this can have serious consequences and you may inadvertently agree to something that is not in your best interest. Again: it is your right to have a full understanding of what is happening with your case in court. But the judge isn’t a mind-reader, so you need to speak up if things are moving too fast.

5. The importance of culture cannot be overstated.

Culture plays a tremendous role in how and why we think and behave in certain ways. I strongly recommend you try to find legal representation from someone who speaks your native language. Having someone who understands your language and your culture can be a tremendous benefit in court. You just can’t anticipate what you might need to explain to a judge. An attorney who truly understands your culture will know how to explain certain customs, rituals, religious perspectives or why something is so very important to you. Plus, in an uncomfortable situation, you’ll feel that much more comfortable and forthcoming to someone whom you feel truly understands you, and where you’re coming from. And it’s probably easier to find an attorney who speaks your language than you think: start by calling your local or state bar association to ask for family law attorneys who speak your language. Often, they can provide you with a list of names that you can research on your own, and reach out to for a free consultation call.

Just remember: you can do this. The process might be a little more difficult, but with planning and preparation, you’ll be starting your next chapter before you know it.

Divorcing in a second language? We’re here to help. Hello Divorce members can get legal help, document review, or book a consultation with Monica by booking time at this link. Please mention Monica in the comments when you make a booking.

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