Generally speaking, it’s never a good idea to sign something you can’t read. Unfortunately, it’s not uncommon for international travelers to be asked to do just that, and it’s something that can definitely come back and haunt you later.
For example, the Houston Chronicle interviewed Haroldy Woods, a Texas flight attendant whose travel agent advised her to purchase a Deutsche BahnCard to save money on a train ticket. Woods bought the card because she trusted the travel agent, but she couldn’t read the application, which was all in German. So, she didn’t realize that the membership would automatically renew unless she canceled it. Three years later, a collection agency came calling for her unpaid membership dues.
Woods called the situation “such an injustice,” telling the Chronicle:
“The agent never mentioned any recurring charges or annual renewal fees, and I couldn’t read the application in German.”
What can you do to avoid having this happen to you? The obvious answer is to simply not sign anything without a translation, but that’s not always an option. For example, the Chronicle interviewed another woman who watched as TAM Airlines made her friend sign a “declaration of responsibilities” contract in Portuguese, which her friend could not read. The only alternative to not signing it would have been to miss the flight.
In some cases, modern technology may be able to help. For example, if you have a digital copy of the document and an Internet connection, tools like Google Translate can give you the “gist” of a document. Remember, though, that machine translation is in its infancy still, so don’t expect it to be entirely accurate. If you have a smart phone, there are also a few apps that can provide similarly shaky translations.
Of course, if you are in the position of providing information to non native speakers, you can ensure you have translated documents on hand to protect your customers against these sort of issues.