Identifying Vital Documents for Translations

Based on Title VI of the Civil Rights Act, everyone is permitted the right to receive Federal financial assistance and not be discriminated against race, color or national origin. Laws have been passed at the Federal, state, and local levels to ensure equal access to services by people with limited English proficiency (LEP). In the case of legal settings, language access is critical and should not be a reason for legal outcomes.

Part of the language access that needs to be provided is via document translations. A “vital document” is one that needs to be translated for use to maintain equity for all people. And a document doesn’t mean just a document – it can also be in the form of videos, online content, etc. The US Department of Health & Human Services (HHS) defines vital documents as “documents that affect access to, retention in, or termination or exclusion from a recipient’s program services or benefits.” Examples include applications, service benefits, written tests, and many more. In some situations, such as when recipients receive Federal financial assistance from the US HHS, those recipients must take reasonable steps to support the LEP population. Recipients include organizations such as hospitals, managed care, universities, and many others.

In some situations, guidance may not be available as to what’s considered a vital document, so it’s up to the individual organization to determine what’s vital and should be translated. The goal is to ensure that language access does not affect someone’s understanding, decision, the timeframe of replies and actions or any other aspects of legal proceedings.

And what languages should you translate into? If you’re in a regulated industry, each organization has its own requirements for threshold languages, which are languages that you must translate documents into based on the local communities. If you’re working with a client who doesn’t fall into threshold languages, you’ll still need to provide language access to accommodate the individual.

In this blog, we’ll cover how to identify a vital document, provide some examples, and share how you can partner with a language service provider (LSP) to meet your document translation needs.

Vital Documents as Defined by the California Department of Justice (DOJ)

According to the California DOJ, a document is vital “if it contains information that is critical for obtaining services or providing awareness of rights, or is required by law.” For translation purposes, the DOJ has specifically defined the following documents as vital in legal settings:

  1. Outreach materials regarding legal rights and obligations
  2. Information regarding language access services
  3. Language access complaint forms and procedures
  4. Written notices of rights and responsibilities
  5. Letters requiring an LEP person to respond
  6. Information on court websites

These guidelines should help you determine if something is considered vital.

Factors to Consider in Identifying What’s Vital

It might be clear whether you should consider some documents to be vital, while others might be more challenging. In the case of vital documents for legal purposes, here in California, the Judicial Council of California (JCC) suggests considering three areas: criticality, frequency, and usability. If you’re trying to determine whether a document is vital, ask yourself the following questions based on JCC’s factors:

  • How critical is this document to a legal process?
  • How critical is this information for the success of an LEP individual in obtaining equal access to services?
  • How critical is this document to an LEP individual’s information or educational needs?
  • Is the document used frequently?
  • Is the document used frequently by self-represented litigants, especially in cases that regularly use interpreters?
  • How useful will this document be for an LEP user in tandem with the feasibility of getting it translated?
  • Will the document be required in order to provide all effective warnings, notices, and areas of concern?
  • Will the document be used for a long period of time, and will it change over time or remain the same?

These questions should provide some guidance on whether you should consider a document to be vital. Based on the results of your analysis, you may also want to create a translation priority list to make sure that the most critical documents get translated.

Working with an LSP to Take a Strategized Approach to Translation

Once you’ve decided what’s vital, the next step is to get the document(s) translated. Translating legal content is a specific skill that requires experienced, professional translators, so there’s no doubt that it can become costly. That’s why it’s best to prioritize your translations projects and strategize your approach with your LSP so that they can meet your translation requirements in the most cost-efficient and organized manner possible.

We’ve been working with legal content for 20+ years. During this time, we’ve helped our clients reduce their costs over time by using these tools and following best practices.

Track Projects and Incorporate Translation Tools with AvantMemory

AvantMemory is a workflow to track progress, track files, and assign translators, all in real time. All linguists can access the same translation memory and terminology online in real time and share comments with each other. It also leverages the repetition of words, which means more consistency and reduced costs since you’re not translating the same words and phrases over and over.

Incorporate a Style Guide

Using a style guide can increase consistency across your content, thus ensuring high-quality translations. Having a clearly defined translation memory, terminology, and style guide as part of the translation workflow can help your LSP easily understand your translation preferences, which in turn can reduce turnaround time and improve quality.

Identify Threshold Languages

There are about 6,500 languages in the world, and 66% of the world’s population speak one of these 12 native languages. But that doesn’t mean that your target audience speaks these languages. Plus, translating into all of these languages would be costly. So instead, work with your LSP to understand your needed threshold languages and other cost-saving tactics that will help you direct financial resources to where it matters the most.

Integrate Business Systems

There’s no need for separate business systems. We can integrate our multilingual tools and technologies into your existing IT framework. We match your current processes and needs through our integrated solutions, and we put systems in place that will be more sustainable and autonomous, thereby saving you time and headaches.

Be Prepared for Last-Minute Translation Projects

Emergency translation needs do come up. By acknowledging in advance that these situations do occur, we’ll get you set you up so we’re prepared for your projects. Then when there’s a last-minute need, we’ll take care of your project so there’s no slowing down in getting your rapid-fire translations (rush translation) when you have a tight deadline.


It may not always be easy to determine what’s a vital document. The goal is to make sure that language access doesn’t affect someone’s understanding of any part of legal proceedings.

We’re here to help strategize and translate your vital documents, as well as advise on your threshold languages. With our tools and best practices, we can help you save time and money in the long run. For more information, contact us at [email protected] or (530) 750-2040.