China attorneys lawyers
Don’t trust the translation

Can’t believe this is still happening, but it does, and in numbers that would likely surprise many people. The “this” to which I am referring is foreign companies signing dual language contracts without knowing exactly what the Chinese language portion of their contract says. This is really risky dangerous and below I explain why.

Many dual language Chinese-English contracts are silent on which language controls. For some unknown reason, foreign companies far too often just assume that the English language portion controls or they just assume that it does not matter because the meaning of both the English and the Chinese portions is exactly the same. Wrong, wrong, wrong.

What language controls when you have a dual-language contract?  If both languages say the same one language controls, that one language will control. If both the English language and the Chinese language portions say the Chinese language portion controls, the Chinese language portion will control. Similarly, if both the Chinese language and the English language portions say the English language portion controls, the English language portion will control. These are the easy and safe examples.

It is everything else that so often cause problems for American and European and Australian companies in  trouble.

If both your English language and your Chinese language portions are silent as to which portion controls, the Chinese language portion will control in Chinese courts and in China arbitrations. In real life this means that if the English language portion of your joint venture contract says that you get 10 percent of the joint venture’s revenue  but the Chinese portion says you get 10 percent of the profits (which will of course be way less than revenues) you will have no legal basis for claiming anything more than 10 percent of the profits. Not surprisingly it is joint venture contracts and licensing agreements where our China lawyers most often see this sort of meaningful dichotomy between the English and the Chinese portions of the contract.

Of the hundreds of dual language contracts proposed by Chinese companies and reviewed by one of my firm’s China attorneys, we’ve never seen a single one where the Chinese portion was less favorable to the Chinese company than the English portion. But we’ve seen plenty where the Chinese portion is better or much better for the Chinese company than the English portion. Chinese companies love using a contract with an English portion that is more favorable to the foreign company than the Chinese portion and then relying on the English speaking company to assume that the English language portion will control.

But what if the English language portion explicitly states that it will control? This works right? Not necessarily. If the Chinese language portion also explicitly states that it will control, the Chinese language portion will control under Chinese law. If the Chinese language portion is silent or says that the English language portion controls, the English language portion will control.

As we noted in China Contracts: Make Them Enforceable Or Don’t Bother, it usually makes sense to draft contracts with Chinese companies in Chinese with an English language translation. But this also requires that if that contract is going to be enforced in China (as should usually be the case), you absolutely positively need to be certain that you know exactly what the Chinese language portion of that contract actually says. No matter what the English language portion of your contract says, it behooves you to know exactly what the Chinese language portion says as well.

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Dan Harris

I am a founder of Harris Bricken, an international law firm with lawyers in Los Angeles, Portland, San Francisco, Seattle, China and Spain.

I mostly represent companies doing business in emerging market countries. It has taken me many years to build my network and it takes constant communication and travel to maintain it. My work has been as varied as securing the release of two improperly held helicopters in Papua New Guinea, setting up a legal framework to move slag from Canada to Poland’s interior, overseeing hundreds of litigation and arbitration matters in Korea, helping someone avoid terrorism charges in Japan, and seizing fish product in China to collect on a debt.

I was named as one of only three Washington State Amazing Lawyers in International Law, I am AV rated by Martindale-Hubbell Law Directory (its highest rating), I am rated 10.0 by AVVO.com (its highest rating), and I am a SuperLawyer.

I am a frequent writer and public speaker on doing business in Asia and I constantly travel between the United States and Asia. I most commonly speak on China law issues and I am the lead writer of the award winning China Law Blog (www.chinalawblog.com). Forbes Magazine, Fortune Magazine, the Wall Street Journal, Investors Business Daily, Business Week, The National Law Journal, The Washington Post, The ABA Journal, The Economist, Newsweek, NPR, The New York Times and Inside Counsel have all interviewed me regarding various aspects of my international law practice.

I am licensed in Washington, Illinois, and Alaska.

In tandem with the international law team at my firm, I focus on setting up/registering companies overseas (via WFOEs, Rep Offices or Joint Ventures), drafting international contracts (NDAs, OEM Agreements, licensing, distribution, etc.), protecting IP (trademarks, trade secrets, copyrights and patents), and overseeing M&A transactions.