A foreign language translation primer

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If you are an auto dealer, you are likely familiar with Section 1632 of the California Civil Code. It’s the law that requires businesspeople who negotiate a contract with a consumer primarily in Spanish, Chinese, Tagalog, Vietnamese, or Korean to provide a translation of the contract before the consumer signs it. To comply with this law, dealers routinely have customers sign a Translated Contract Acknowledgement form. But is that enough? What does it mean to negotiate “primarily” in one of the listed languages? And what if you discover that the customer happens to be totally fluent in English? Are you still on the hook? A few court decisions provide some guidance on these questions.

In Lopez v. Asbury Fresno Imports, LLC (2015) 234 Cal.App.4th 71, the plaintiffs and appellants (“the Lopezes”) were born in Mexico and did not speak or read English well. They wanted to buy a car for their son, David, so they visited a dealership and spoke with a salesman in Spanish. The cars on the lot did not have the features David wanted, so the Lopezes placed a special order for a car and returned several weeks later. The Spanish-speaking salesman was not present during their second visit, so the Lopezes called David, who speaks English, and had him join. They spoke with a salesman who did not speak Spanish. David translated. Two years later, the car was damaged beyond repair in an accident, and the Lopezes filed suit against the car dealership on various grounds, including violation of Section 1632.

The Lopezes argued that the dealership violated Section 1632 by failing to furnish a Spanish translation of their purchase contract, which they asserted was primarily negotiated in Spanish. The trial court ruled in favor of the car dealership, reasoning that David was the primary negotiator on behalf of the Lopezes, and he negotiated in English. The court of appeal agreed, finding that although the Lopezes spoke Spanish with a salesman during their first visit, “there was no negotiation of the sale of the vehicle on that occasion. Plaintiffs looked at the cars available; David expressed interest in a particular model, but it was not immediately available with the navigation system David wanted... There was little or no discussion of price or other terms at that time.” It was only during the Lopezes’ second visit, the court of appeal found, that they negotiated the purchase of the vehicle, in English, through David.

So what does it mean to negotiate “primarily” in a given language? The Lopez opinion does not give us a clear answer to that question, but it does suggest one thing: the key may not be the extentof the interactions with the customer conducted in the foreign language (e.g., over 50%), but rather the substance of the negotiations (e.g., price and other material terms of a purchase).

Does it matter if the customer happens to be proficient in English? Maybe, but maybe not. A federal court decision from California suggests that the dealer may not be off the hook in such a scenario: “a party’s fluency in English is irrelevant to section 1632, which makes no reference to a party’s English-language proficiency.” ING Bank, fsb v. Ahn (2010) 717 F.Supp.2d 931, 933.

Another interesting feature of Section 1632 that appears on the face of the statute but can easily be overlooked is the delineation of specific languages. “Section 1632 only applies to businesses who negotiate primarily in any of the five enumerated languages: Spanish, Chinese, Tagalog, Vietnamese, and Korean.” Gusenkov v. Washington Mut. Bank (N.D. Cal. 2010) 2010 WL 725815 at *3 (emphasis added). The plaintiffs in Gusenkov argued that Section 1632 required the defendants to provide them with a Russian translation of certain loan documents. The court did not entertain that argument, holding without hesitation that Russian translations are not required under Section 1632. It appears safe to assume that the list of languages in Section 1632 is indeed exhaustive.

And lastly, a friendly reminder: Wherever and whenever a contract is negotiated primarily in one of the languages delineated in Section 1632, a notice in that languagemust be clearly displayed providing that the dealer is required to provide a translated copy of the contract. Civil Code Section 1632(f).

Section 1632 is a long statute that can be somewhat hard to follow since it applies to various types of contracts. But as this article demonstrates, it is a code section that dealers should be intimately familiar with. And remember that while a properly executed Translated Contract Acknowledgement form is an essential part of any transaction where the customer is known to speak one of the languages identified in Civil Code Section 1632, depending on the specifics of the situation, that alone may not be enough to protect you. Take the time the read the statute carefully and when in doubt consult your attorney.