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May 19, 2020 Article

Top 10 Tips for Managing a Foreign-Language Document Review

Creating an efficient and effective work flow for a foreign-language document review requires substantial planning, but it’s not impossible!

By Leslie L. Meredith

Junior litigators are often charged with designing an efficient document review work flow and overseeing the review process. That task can be daunting in and of itself, but it’s even more challenging when the documents are in a foreign language. Extra steps, extra time, and extra expense are all par for the course.

Fear not! Follow these 10 tips to help the process run more smoothly, whether you’re reviewing your client’s documents for production or searching for the smoking gun in incoming discovery. 

1. Allow Plenty of Time

Build lots of extra time into all of your estimates, especially if you are working with a non-Latin language such as Russian or Japanese. Reviews can take up to twice as long. Even translating documents takes longer for non-Latin-language documents—up to twice as long as translating documents from one Latin language to another. Resist the temptation to push off reviewing foreign-language documents while you focus on the easier-to-deal-with English-language documents; otherwise, you will face a time crunch at the end. 

2. Craft Search Terms with Care

Foreign-language search terms should be developed in close consultation with a native or fluent speaker of the foreign language who also has a good familiarity with the facts of the case. Google Translate or a quick conversation with a colleague who took a few courses in the language will not suffice. Bear in mind that especially with non-Latin languages, there will almost never be one ideal translation of an English search term. Expect that there will probably be several variants of each search term. Document the thought process behind your search terms in more detail than you would with English-language search terms. This documentation will be important if questions arise about your process and because you may very likely need to refine these search terms as the review progresses.

3. Create Additional Review Guidance

All reviews have some sort of protocol for the reviewers to follow. In a foreign-language review, consider maintaining a few other reference documents for the reviewers that are periodically updated during the review, such as a set of frequently asked questions; a cast of characters that includes titles (in both languages), nicknames, and email addresses the reviewers have seen; and a word bank of other terminology relevant to the matter.

4. Spend Time with the Review Team

All reviews include some sort of initial meeting or training with the review team, even if it’s via phone. In a foreign-language review, you should spend a lot of (virtual) face time with the reviewers over the first few days of the review, not only answering questions but also asking questions to get a better understanding of what the reviewers are seeing in the initial documents, which you probably cannot read yourself. Use these early discussions to tailor the plan for the rest of the review, including refining your time or cost estimates.

5. Use a Document Description Coding Field

Add a free-text field to your document review coding pane for reviewers to write short, high-level descriptions of the documents. Reviewing these descriptions will help you get an idea of what the reviewers are seeing. Emphasize to your reviewers that they do not need to spend a lot of time drafting these descriptions. Even cursory, high-level descriptions and quick translations of key phrases can be very valuable information.

6. Build a Strong Review Team

In addition to native speakers of the foreign language, consider including on the review team a native English speaker who is fluent in the foreign language. Such a person can often call out and explain linguistic and cultural nuances that might otherwise be overlooked and may make a big difference in how you understand a document. Down the road, that person can also be very helpful in performing quality control of translations because he or she will be familiar with the facts and nuances of the case.

A paralegal or a legal technology specialist who has some ability with the foreign language can also be very valuable. One way to find these resources is to ask the initial members of your review team if they know other attorneys, paralegals, interpreters, or consultants who might be a good fit for your needs. Word-of-mouth referrals very often result in finding great people for your team.

7. Treat Your Review Team Well (Even More So Than Usual)

The job market for foreign-language document reviewers, particularly attorneys, is much more competitive than for English-language reviewers. If your matter will involve months or even years of work, make special efforts to retain the best members of your team. That may mean allowing for more flexible work schedules or locations in addition to higher hourly rates.

8. Consider Agreeing on a Translation and Interpretation Protocol (If in Litigation)

At the document review stage, translation and interpretation protocols can create a mechanism for the parties to share the not insignificant cost of translating documents. These protocols can also govern later stages of discovery and litigation, such as interpretation at depositions and hearings. In drafting your protocol, give thought to who would ultimately resolve disputes over interpretation or translation. Possibilities include the judge (who presumably will not speak the language either and would have to make a decision based on what is presented by the parties) or a neutral third party who is fluent in the language.

9. Trust but Verify Machine Translation

Machine translations are inherently less expensive, but also less accurate, than human translations of documents. They can be useful in some circumstances. There are significant risks, though, to deciding that a document is unimportant or nonresponsive based on a review of the machine translation only. You should review a sample of the foreign-language originals of any documents that are excluded based on their machine translations to make sure you are not missing something. The size of a sufficient sample will vary, but it should be larger than, probably twice as large as, the size you would choose in a similar situation for English-language documents.

10. Track Your Translations

Once you reach the point of translating documents for use by English-speaking attorneys, you should establish a simple but comprehensive system for tracking which documents have been translated and where the translations can be found. For example, a paralegal might maintain a spreadsheet listing translations and tracking whether a particular translation is work product or if it is an official, certified translation. Whatever system you devise, ensure that your entire case team uses the tracking system and that one person is responsible for maintaining it. That way, you avoid having the same document translated twice or scrambling at the last minute to obtain a certified translation of a document for a deposition.


With adequate preparation and planning, your foreign-language document review will flow efficiently and effectively.

Leslie L. Meredith is counsel in the Washington, D.C., office of Buckley LLP.

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