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English Translations Of Chinese Laws. Don’t Call Us.

Posted in Basics of China Business Law

Pretty much every week someone asks me for an English translation of a Chinese law or cites one to me as an explanation for a decision they made or are contemplating.

China’s laws are too precise/too vague/too changing/too real world/too dependent on regulations to use English language translations of one or two laws for making final decisions. An English language translation can in many cases give you a good “feel” for a situation or a starting point for how to proceed, but the risk of that translation being very wrong or just enough wrong to make a big (or even just a little difference) is just too great for you to rely on it without more.

And every year or so we get a company comes to us as a new client seeking our help in getting them out of some sort of trouble they find themselves in with the Chinese government for having accidentally violated some law due to a mediocre translation or one that simply did not include all of the laws and regulations on the subject.  In figuring out how to legally proceed in China, in many instances even a good translation is not nearly enough because decisions on how to proceed might require interpretations of local regulations or even knowledge of local quirks. Many times one of our China-based lawyers (or even one of our China lawyers in the US) will get on the phone and call a government official (or two) to get their views on how the relevant government body interprets/enforces particular laws/regulations and/or treats particular situations.  Chinese government officials are virtually always willing to talk these things out and they are often surprisingly helpful, even if they do not always provide the expected or desired answer.

So what do I tell those who ask me for English language translations of Chinese laws?  I send them the following form email:

I am sorry but because we do not work from translations of Chinese laws (we find them too risky and unreliable) I do not know where you can find translations of the particular laws you   seek nor am I aware of the best site or sites for such translations generally.  I wish you the best of luck in your search.

What have you found out there?

  • David – China Law & Practice

    It is always best to read a legal document (or any document for
    that matter) in its original language. But this is not always possible. As any
    non-native Putonghua speaker knows, the complexity of learning the language is
    immense. In these situations, turning to translations is necessary and should
    not be a bad thing. Also, clients might often wish to see pertinent parts of
    the law in a language they understand. Even native speakers find it difficult
    to translate a law clearly for this purpose.

    The magazine that I edit, China Law & Practice, is
    considered one of the best resources for translations. They are highly regarded
    in the market and are used by some of the biggest international and domestic
    corporations in China. Law firms also turn to China Law & Practice because
    of the accuracy, favouring the publication’s translations over their own
    internal translations. Zhang Jixing, Sinopec’s director general of legal had
    this to say: “The quality of the translations provided by CLP are outstanding
    and very professional.”

    • http://www.chinalawblog.com/ Dan Harris

      You are absolutely right to tout China Law & Practice’s translations; they are first rate. In fact, I just finished reading your latest issue, in which CLB’s own Steve Dickinson has a great article. Translations done well can be very valuable, especially as a first cut. The problem arises though when people try to use them in situations where a close parsing of the law in the original language is necessary.

      • bystander

        I’m no lawyer, but I’ve been in this situation any number of times in China: you enter into a contract, get translations and explanations and reviews and so on to convince yourself that it’s more or less what you want. Because you can’t read Chinese, you have no choice but to rely on translations etc. Then when a problem arises, the contract must be parsed very closely and often in regards to a situation that you didn’t imagine at all when the agreement was originally entered into. At that point, it becomes evident that there are all kinds of phrases that simply can’t be translated in a way that captures all the necessary nuance. I don’t know of any way around this except to rely from the outset on a lawyer that is fluent in Chinese, but that of course is fraught with problems all its own, as its not easy to find a lawyer that is both competent and invulnerable to bribery by the other side or some other form of malfeasance that renders the whole question of translations moot. Very tough nut.

  • Rogier Creemers

    From an academic point of view, matters are quite similar. I have, by now, translated hundreds of legal and regulatory documents on the media sector, and just now, I feel as though I’m starting to get a sense of what the state of the rules is. I couldn’t say anything about other industries, but it seems that, for media at least, the problem isn’t that you have a bad translation of one or two documents, it’s that you don’t know about the hundreds of other documents that also will have a bearing on your business.