How to avoid Chinese legal translation errors

Updated: Aug 24, 2018

The world is a lot smaller now than it used to be. Now I’m not saying we had a few feet shaved off. But technology and widening lanes of commerce have made it possible to do business anywhere in the world, from anywhere in the world. Unfortunately, translation errors come with the territory.

If business is to go smoothly between entities from different parts of the world, they obviously have to find a means to communicate. This is why the translation industry is one of the major drivers of international trade and commerce.

However, translation errors aren’t pretty. They can create intensely embarrassing moments for even the best and biggest of firms. And if your translation is not properly managed, they can cause no end of trouble.

Why translation errors suck

Translation errors are never good news when they occur. But if the fates are looking the other way, they could set up a big stink for your business. Here’s why they suck.

They can affect business brand

The aim of most businesses in their international transactions is to forge solid relationships. They want to show their value and professionalism to international business partners.

Translation errors do nothing to help this positive image. While some errors can be funny, others can be offensive and have the effect of portraying the business as unserious or unprofessional.

They cause miscommunication at every turn

They can cause massive communication breakdown in otherwise healthy business relationships. Once they occur, these translations can make international partners regard the business as insincere or even worse, fraudulent.

The effect of this is that a business relationship that was nurtured so carefully may be dashed to bits in a single day and all hopes of profit from the relationship spiralling down the drain with it.

Litigation almost always follows

This is one constant by-product of translation errors. Up to 5% of contract disputes between foreign companies and Chinese companies are due to translation errors and it’s not hard to see why.

When sharp disagreements occur from the meaning of contested words, parties to the contract may have to resort to litigation and other dispute resolution options to assert their rights.

This can result in a massive waste of time and resources that could have been spent more profitably and it often signals the end of the working relationship between the parties.

It’s often a sorry waste of resources

Even if all hell stays put and the translation mistakes only cause minor discomfort, the company would still have to expend valuable resources to rectify the errors and obtain a more suitable translation.

And the annoying part is: all of this could have been avoided if simple steps had been taken to guard against errors. Thankfully, hindsight is 20/20. We’ve looked into the situation and we came up with six tips that can help you steer clear of legal translation errors.

Staying clear of Chinese legal translation errors

You obviously don’t need a lot of imagination to understand the implication of legal translation errors for your business. To ensure you don’t let legal Chinese legal translation errors destroy your business, you should take note of the following.

Hire only professional Chinese translators

The first step towards avoiding errors in your translated legal documents is to go professional right from the off. By doing so, you will be limiting the possibility of error to the barest minimum.

This is because professional Chinese translators are often experienced and exposed to the real possibility that monumental errors may occur. They are thus careful and painstaking in the process of translation.

Translators holding the China Accreditation Test for Translators and Interpreters (CATTI) certification can be relied on, seeing as this certification is considered the most authoritative and difficult to obtain in China.

Ensure that they are proficient both in Chinese and the source language of the documents you want translated. This bilingual proficiency puts the translator in a unique position to appreciate the context of the source document and render it as exactly as possible in Chinese.

Once you have yourself a quality, experienced professional, you’re well on your way to scuttling the chances that your documents will be littered with errors.

Go for the legal specialist every time

It doesn’t end with hiring a professional though. Seeing as your translation needs concern legal documents, you have to take the extra step and ensure that your professional translator is cut from the same cloth (or paper in this instance) as the document.

There’s much advantage to be had from hiring translators that have knowledge and experience in the area of law that your documents border on. Accurate legal translation requires an understanding of the key legal nuances of the particular area and how best to render them in Chinese.

This means that your professional translator will also act as a second drafter of your legal documents, with a practiced eye trained on rendering the document in language that will find favour in Chinese courts.

This cuts out “ignorant” translation errors that arise due to a failure to take into consideration how the document will be enforced when the time comes.

Don’t disregard localization

Localization will always be a big deal in a country as rich in diversity as China. A lot of businesses and individuals make the mistaken assumption that you only have to render the document in Mandarin or Cantonese and that takes care of the translation fully. Well, nothing could be further from the truth.

Localization is more than just translation. It takes into account the distinct dialect for a region as well as the appropriate modes of speech and culture in the region. It is preparation for the peculiar quirks that can obtain in regions of a country as diverse as China.

Failure to take localization into consideration can result in totally unlooked for consequences. A phrase that makes perfect sense on Mainland China may be viewed dimly if used in Taiwan or certain areas in Hong Kong.

In this situation, it won’t be that you got the translation wrong. Rather, it would be that you got the audience wrong.

Create a glossary/style guide

It is useful to sit with your professional translator and decide on a glossary of terms that will be used in the translation or a style guide that is in keeping with the overall tone and context of the document.

There’s all sorts of good to be had from doing this. By deciding upfront what certain words in your contract mean and how you would want them interpreted, you deflect the possibility of errors. And this is a big deal, because this is where most translation errors stem from.

Cases abound where single terms were mistranslated and caused massive disputes. In the huge dispute between Frigaliment v. B.N.S, also called the “Chicken case”, the entire case revolved around the correct meaning of the word “Chicken”. Seriously, chicken.

The style guide can help the translator render a translated document that mirrors the tone, urgency and carefully worded language of the original. This can be particularly important when the document is needed for litigation.

Call attention to key words and clauses

If a word or phrase in your document is super important, you should direct your professional translator to pay special attention to it. This allows them take extra care in translating the words or clauses into appropriate Chinese equivalents.

Should you fail to point this out, your professional translator may make the honest mistake of treating those words or clauses as a normal part of the text and applying discretion to render them in the best way that is in line with the context of the surrounding words.

This could be disastrous especially when the clause or words were couched to contain very specific information. The best way to avoid this is to specially bring it to the notice of your translator.

Don’t skip the quality control

This tip comes last because it’s probably the most important after the first. A sure fire way to land yourself an error ridden documents is to accept them as regular without first checking and double checking the translation.

Many a disaster has been averted at the point of quality control and the odds are that these stats won’t flag any time soon. This is your opportunity to compare both source and translated documents and ensure that the one reads exactly like the other.

And don’t rush it either, no matter how large that deadline looms. This is where you should slow down and make sure you’re not hurrying yourself into trouble.


So long as translation remains a human dominated enterprise, there would always be scope for error. But if these tips are followed as best as possible, you’ll find that you’re well equipped to cut them out with ease.

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