Cross-Cultural Legal Transactions Can Easily Get Lost in Translation
By Ira Pilchen
American Bar Association
Aug. 5, 2011
TORONTO–When Frank Perdue launched his poultry company’s marketing slogan, “It takes a tough man to make a tender chicken,” it was a huge success in the United States. But its rollout in Mexico reportedly raised eyebrows and produced giggles instead. Apparently, the Spanish translation gives the slogan a raunchy sexual connotation.
Olga M. Pina tells that story to underscore the need for sensitivity and caution while conducting cross-border business and representing international clients. Pina, the practice leader for international business at Fowler White Boggs in Tampa, Fla., spoke on an American Bar Association Annual Meeting Section of Litigation panel about the need for international lawyers to be alert to differing cultures and customs.
Pina counsels her younger associates who work with foreign clients or overseas that a lawyer’s appearance is as important as knowledge of the law, advocacy abilities and negotiating skills.
“Most jurisdictions outside the U.S. don’t do business casual,” Pina said. “How you come across not only shows a sign of respect in your business, but it also sends a message about authority and power.”
Pina observed that women lawyers in a professional setting have more flexibility in how they dress when dealing with Latin American cultures than they do in most Asian cultures, where dark, conservative suits are the norm.
Language is another crucial consideration in conducting cross-border legal business, Pina said. When relying on translators, she said, it’s important to make sure they are fluent not only in the foreign language, but also in the jurisdiction’s laws and legal customs. Otherwise, misunderstandings can result.
Such a mix-up happened with Pina, who is fluent in Spanish, when she represented a U.S. business in a tax matter involving an employee who had been temporarily assigned to Argentina. The required Argentine tax hadn’t been withheld from his salary, and the employee threatened to report the company to the authorities.
After the matter was settled, Pina confirmed from Argentine counsel that because of the settlement, the company needn’t pay any taxes. Her incredulous client, knowing that such an arrangement would be impossible in the United States, asked her to reconfirm this. Pina asked and was again told that the company needn’t pay any taxes.
It dawned on Pina that there must be a communication breakdown. “I’m speaking the right language, but asking the wrong question,” she said.
Pina ultimately asked, “By law, what taxes would my client have to pay?” The lawyer told her the amount but said that since the employee wasn’t going to report the company, the government wouldn’t know to enforce the collection.
“What I realized is that culture overlays the language and the interpretation of what my question was,” Pina said. Unlike the IRS in the United States, tax collection in Argentina is weakly enforced.
“Culture, perception and language are very different things, and they all come together,” Pina concluded from that experience.” So you need to be very careful that you’re asking the right question and you understand the context in which it’s being interpreted.”