East Barely Meets West in Hong Kong Difficulty of Translating English Laws into Chinese May Stymie Justice

By Todd Crowell, | The Christian Science Monitor, February 27, 1997 | Go to article overview

East Barely Meets West in Hong Kong Difficulty of Translating English Laws into Chinese May Stymie Justice


Todd Crowell,, The Christian Science Monitor


It's quite a challenge. How do you translate the common law, some of the terms incomprehensible even to untrained English speakers, into Chinese, the language of a country with no common-law tradition, not even, some would argue, respect for the rule of law?

For the past 10 years, Tony Yen and his crew of 46 lawyers and translators have been laboring mightily to translate into Chinese the legal accumulation of 150 years of British colonial rule. That amounts to some 550 ordinances, or 21,000 pages of text.

All of the basic translations have been completed, and they are slowly working their way through a complex vetting process that is about two-thirds complete. Mr. Yen is working overtime to see that it is finished by the time the British flag is hauled down in about four months. "Our target is to complete the entire process by July 1," he says. It hasn't always been easy. Take a typical phrase: the burden of proof. "That's not too hard," Yen says. "There are accepted transliterations of the main words." In literal Chinese it comes out as something like "responsibility for providing evidence." But other, more arcane legal terms derived from Europe's feudal past have proved almost impossible to translate. "Sometimes we've had to coin entirely new words," he says. The results have sometimes been criticized as being inelegant Chinese (a charge not unknown against legalese in English either.) A more serious criticism is that disagreements will arise over different meanings between Chinese and English. "The fear held by many is that a wholesale swing toward the use of Chinese throughout our courts will eventually lead to the abandonment of the common-law system," says Christopher Chan, president of the Law Society. "We anticipated this problem when we began 10 years ago," Yen says. His group studied and adopted some of the solutions of other bilingual jurisdictions, such as Canada and especially the United Nations. He notes that arguments over meanings of words are unavoidable, even in single-language environments. The work of Yen and his colleagues is critical because under a 1984 Sino-British agreement Hong Kong will remain a common-law jurisdiction, even after China's takeover. The courts, respect for contracts, and the rule of law are considered essential for the territory's continuing prosperity and autonomy from the communist mainland. Because of the complexities of the common law, the judiciary, now about half expatriate, will likely be staffed with foreigners for many years after the handover. Attorney-General Jeremy Mathews is almost the last British holdout, besides the governor, in the upper reaches of the civil service, now "localized" with ethnic Chinese. …

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