7 things to note when doing English and Chinese legal translation

Updated: Aug 24, 2018

If you’ve come across any competent professional Chinese translator, you’ll probably have learned that English and Chinese legal translation is not an exact art. The two languages are miles apart in terms of relative difficulty of expression and the sheer number of characters involved.

For instance, while there are just 26 characters in the English alphabet, the Chinese alphabet ranges between an astonishing 2,500 to 3,000 characters. Even more, the acts of speaking, writing and reading Chinese are far from the same as English.

Spoken Chinese has several local dialects it subdivides into. Written Chinese further sub-divides into Traditional, Modern Simplified, Standard Script and other forms of written Chinese. Being able to read any of these is not the same as being able to write them.

Frankly, the truth is there’s more than a little bit of scope to muddle things up when you’re doing English and Chinese legal translation. And considering the fact that legal language is pretty exact and needs to be rendered exactly, your translation job can prove problematic, even for a seasoned professional translator.

So, if your business or legal documents are to be translated into Chinese with any sort of success, you need to take note of these vital points. Here are 7 things to note when you’re doing English and Chinese legal translation.

Achieving flawless English and Chinese legal translation

Okay, we’ll come right out and say it. Most of the time, translation is more about you, the client, than it is about your translator. There, we said it.

Same as a dentist can’t be regarded as any shade of competent if his patient keeps pointing out the wrong tooth as the bad one, it’s not possible to provide first rate Chinese translation of legal documents when the client is not really sure what they want.

So, flawless translation of any sort of legal or business documents into Chinese is only possible when you work closely with your translator and give them all the support they need to perform well.

How do you go about providing this support? By keeping these 7 points in mind.

Clarity is key

This is more than just explanation. It’s about knowing exactly what you want and being able to communicate it properly to the translator. While we’re pretty sure your professional translator will be a quick study, you still need to help them along.

The sheer number of characters in Chinese and possible meanings that a single English word can bear once translated means that your translator probably has a lot bouncing around in their heads already. You can help them focus on the real task at hand by knowing what you want and communicating it as clearly as possible.

Ensure that the translator understands what the document is about and, crucially, what it is meant to be used for. This can help them understand the context in which the documents are to be translated.

If you’re not clear about what you want done, errors can ensue. And in the world of business and legal documents, there are no little errors. For instance, a writer shared his experience in reviewing a contract between an American company and a Chinese company.

The contract was for delivery of some goods by the Chinese company to the American one and it was done first in English, then translated to Chinese.

English version: Product must be delivered by August 10

Chinese version: Manufacturer should do its best to deliver the product by August 10. If that’s impossible, try and get the product out quick as possible.

Guess which version is most relevant to the contract between them.

The legal system

This is especially important when court documents are involved. If the documents relate to complex litigation, they need to be rendered very carefully.

Every country’s legal system has culturally-dependent concepts that are often reflected in the legal language used in contracts and court documents. When these documents are written, they would obviously have been written in language considered acceptable in English-style courts, and even more often as a matter of law.

The translation into their Chinese equivalent must also take this language into account and adapt it, where necessary, to the accepted legal language in the Chinese legal system. This spotlights why it’s important that your translator have a solid legal background.

Ensure that your translator understands the use and weight of the specific language used in your document so they can be conscious of how best they would translate into their Chinese equivalent.

Support material and background information

We mentioned the importance of context before but it bears repeating here. What’s the difference between the statements: “Let’s eat Grandma” and “Let’s eat, Grandma”?

Context. And one will definitely have Grandma in serious doubt over seeing that 90th birthday. In order to pick either as the correct translation, we’d need to understand what the speaker meant by the statement and here’s where background information comes in handy.

Adequate background information will help the translator understand the context in which the document was prepared and how to adequately render that same context in the translation.

Support material can help refine the understanding of this context and lead to a better translation output overall. For instance, a contract, all on its own may not be very easy to understand. But when a recital is provided, it can help context.


The Chinese language uses two major dialects: Mandarin and Cantonese. While Mandarin may be considered the official spoken language for business, there are hundreds of other different dialects that are spoken across the geography of the country.

This means you have to pay pretty close attention to the geographical area you’ll be needing the translated documents. If your business is in Hong Kong, Macau or the Canton province, you know your target dialect should be Cantonese.

Why is dialect important? Here’s why. Terminology can differ wildly, based on dialect. Mainland China and Singapore both use Simplified Chinese. However, the term “Computer” as used on Mainland China is equivalent to the term “Calculator” as used in Singapore.

Now imagine the wrong term was used in the wrong region. How would you feel about yourself knowing you’ve just ordered 10,000 units of high-end calculators instead of the computers you set out to order?

Glossary of key terms

There are certain terms that are central to your document. More often than not, there’s no exact replica for an English word in Chinese. Apart from this, the same Chinese word can be used to pass across several kinds of meaning in Chinese.

In order to avoid confusion and to aid the accuracy of your translation, it is useful to designate a preferred foreign equivalent to those central terms. So, the foreign equivalent can be used throughout your document and thus aid consistency.

It will also help reduce the likelihood of awkward errors or headaches further down the line.

Linguistic issues

Apart from deciding on a glossary of key terms, you also need to decide on what approach the translator should take when handling English words or phrases that have no equivalent in the Chinese language.

For instance, the phrases “get the ball rolling” and “call it a day” have no direct equivalents in Chinese. While you obviously cannot sit with the translator and assign an agreed meaning to every phrase or word in your document, you can agree on how to proceed.

Decide with the translator how these words and phrases should be translated. You can also decide if problematic words should be explained better in the text or with the aid of an explanatory footnote instead.

Style and formatting

There are two style formats that are usually used for translation: the bilingual and the monolingual formats.

When the bilingual format is used, both the English and Chinese versions of the text will be included in the document. In this instance, the English version will be rendered parallel to the Chinese.

The monolingual format is often referred to as a “mirror image” format. This is because it simply translates the English version in a separate document as closely as possible.

It is the nature and end to which the document is to be put that will determine which of the styles is most appropriate. Generally, the bilingual format is used to aid the filling of forms.


The job of translation is not a one-person gig. It’s a close collaboration between client and translator to see that the end of the job is achieved well. With these seven points you can now understand better the things you need to pay attention to and how to foster that collaboration between you and your translator.

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