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Parlez-vous Insurance?

Despite official bilingualism, brokers are occasionally faced with limited options when it comes to delivering documents in French

What do you do when a client asks for an insurance document in French? Call a colleague in Montreal? Contact the insurer? Hire a translator? These are the questions Kevin McMurray, executive vice president at Willis, asked himself when a client requested a copy of his manuscripted policy in French. McMurray first looked to the insurance company for support. “They said, ‘Well, we don’t have one. We’ll have to get it translated. We’re not sure if we can do that, it’s going to cost money.’ ” In the end, his client no longer required the French version of the policy, but the experience brought the translation issue to McMurray’s attention. “It’s still difficult to get things done in two languages,” he says. “We would be hard pressed here if a client said to us, ‘Starting next week, I want all of my correspondence in French because I’m entitled to it.’ ”

New Brunswick is currently the only province that requires insurance policy wordings to be available in both official languages. All Canadians can ask for policy documents in French or English, but these documents are not always readily available in both languages. Though the Insurance Bureau of Canada (IBC) makes commercial and personal property and casualty advisory wordings available in both languages to its members in all provinces, excluding Quebec [the Bureau d’Assurance du Canada (BAC) develops the personal lines wordings for Quebec], the adoption of these wordings is up to each individual member company. In addition, most companies make adjustments to the policy wording, if adopted. “Most members do make adjustments to their wordings to create competitive advantages or meet specific requests of their brokers,” said Steve Kee, director of media relations at IBC, in an email. “Presumably, these same differences in the wordings are translated as well.” But as McMurray’s example demonstrates, translating insurance documents becomes an issue when companies need specialized documents in another language.

No Easy Feat

The first major challenge when translating insurance documents is finding a translator who can accurately interpret insurance terms. In 2011, Delphine Clerc started PourvousTranslation services, which provides specialized translation services to the insurance industry. After working in the insurance industry for six years, Clerc noticed that there was a definite need in the marketplace for a translator who could speak French, English and “insurance.” She has worked with law firms, adjusters and insurance companies to help translate some complex documents and says knowing the industry jargon is vital to her work. “Understanding an insurance policy written in English, in French, or other languages, can be quite challenging,” she says. “Some words and phrases [have a] special meaning on their own when they’re inserted into the policy.”

For example, in a policy detailing coverage for fire and theft, Clerc says the French policy would not use the words ‘feu’ or ‘vol,’ the everyday words used for ‘fire’ and ‘theft.’ “We would use the word ‘incendie’ to be appropriate to the insurance wording [for fire],” For the same reason, Clerc says the word ‘vandalisme’ would be used for ‘theft.’ “The translator is a message provider and not an author, but you still have to send the correct message. So, it’s very important to stick to the technical [wording],” she says.

Another concern for anyone considering translation services is, of course, time. Shawn Malik, Managing Director of MGB Claims Consultants, needs to have documents translated a couple of times a year and has used Clerc’s services in the past. He has had cases where a company headquartered in Ontario has a fire or flood in a Quebec location and MGB receives “stacks of invoices” in French. “If you get a stack of 300 pages of invoices and the insured paid them, they want reimbursement. Normally—even if it’s in English—it takes us some time to organize them and go through them and see what’s covered in the policy. That might take a week or two in itself, but now you have to add an extra step of having somebody translate it first. That’s going to take an extra week or two. It can cause some delays, but we have to work around it,” he says.

Translating insurance documents will take time, but it can also cost a lot of money. Elliott Special Risks has translated its website and all of its policies are available in both French and English (save for its marine policy which is in the process of being translated). Nancy Costa, national marketing manager for Elliott Special Risks, says translating documents can have “huge cost implications.” PourvousTranslation, for example, charges anywhere between 10 cents per word for “non-technical translations” to 25 cents per word for “highly complex or specialized documents,” which includes official documents. A policy document can be well over one hundred pages and thousands of words, making it a very expensive undertaking. Despite the costs, Costa says bilingualism is important. “For our Quebec clients, we want to be able to afford them the option of having any documentation or information about our company in both English and French,” she says. “It shows the respect for their own culture and their own work ethic and business.”

Combiens?

There are obvious risks associated with translating insurance documents. “The translator has a legal responsibility to present a translation [that is] as accurate, as specific and as technical as possible,” says Clerc.

The broker has similar obligations around this issue. “We obviously have to be very careful, from an E&O perspective, in translating the meaning of phrases. Words or phrases in the business world can be very different from everyday language. It gets to be even more complicated when you perhaps are dealing with larger sophisticated clients who have a [policy with] manuscripted wording,” says McMurray.

The language issue occasionally does lead to brokers choosing one insurance market over another based on its ability to offer documents in the client’s language of choice.

“Never will a consumer be confronted with a situation that he cannot be served in his language, that’s for sure,” says Connie Ciccarello, company director of Montreal-based brokerage Ciccarello Assurances. But Ciccarello admits that situations do arise when French policies are not readily available for clients who want them. “The issue is that sometimes we do go outside of province to go get a market. If the company is in Quebec and there is a provider for tanning salons [for example], out of Ontario, we can go get a quote in Ontario. They will provide us with their English forms, they don’t have enough business in Quebec to justify the cost of issuing French forms,” she says. “That scenario does happen. When it does happen, the customer is provided with an offer of insurance from that company,” she says. “If the client decides that they like this [English] offer then they sign a release agreement that says, ‘Yes, we accept to receive the policy in English’.”  The policy will then be accompanied by a letter in French explaining the policy, with a disclaimer that advises that if there is a discrepancy between the broker’s cover letter and the policy, the policy document prevails. But if the client insists on the policy being in French, Cicarello says she will not translate the policy, but will find a different policy in French from another market. “We can always find an alternative offering here in Quebec—sometimes there’s a cost difference, of course,” she says.

It’s clear that translating insurance documents is not without its challenges. What’s more, there doesn’t seem to be any consensus on what to do when a document needs translating. “I think that the global business language is still English. But, at what point do you say to your clients, ‘Well, we can’t do that in French’? Or, ‘It’s not available’?” asks McMurray. “Is this the broker’s responsibility?” Though McMurray concedes that he’s not faced with a translating issue every day, the problem has come up before and it’s bound to come up again. “It’s a tough one,” he says. “I don’t know that there’s an easy answer to it.”

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Copyright 2012 Rogers Publishing Ltd. This article first appeared in the July/August 2012 edition of Canadian Insurance Top Broker magazine.

Transcontinental Media G.P.