What makes English to Chinese legal document translation unique?

Updated: Aug 24, 2018

The task of translation is rarely easy. The peculiar nuances of the languages involved in the translation as well as the material sought to be translated can often complicate the process. Against this backdrop, English to Chinese legal document translation is in a class of its own.

Compared to doing English to Chinese translation, translating documents into Spanish, Italian and even French can almost be considered a walk in the park.

This is because those languages are pretty close to English and share a lot of similarities across the pond. Chinese, on the other hand is about as far from English as the North Pole is to the South Pole (or as Chinese communism is to American capitalism, take your pick).

When you add translation of legal documents from English to Chinese into the mix, the situation just gets a lot trickier. You’re unlikely to find a combination more unique than this.

You’re probably wondering what all the fuss is. After all, it’s just translation that anybody can do. You could even give those documents to your bilingual secretary to translate or to that under-worked associate you considered sacking last week.

Well, we hate to tell you but down that route lies disaster.

Why you shouldn’t give your English to Chinese legal document translation to a random person

Translating English to Chinese has its unique set of peculiarities. Letting a random person translate your legal documents can easily lead to disaster. Here are some reasons why.

Chinese is a difficult language

The Chinese language is made of up two major dialects, quite distinct from each other: Mandarin and Cantonese. While Mandarin is generally considered the primary dialect in China, Cantonese is spoken in Taiwan, Hong Kong and Macau. And these aren’t the only dialects being spoken in China.

However, speaking the language is one thing, writing and reading is another. On Mainland China, the official writing system is Simplified Chinese which uses up to 8,000 characters while the official writing system in Taiwan, Hong Kong and Macau is Traditional Chinese which uses up to an astonishing 13,000 characters.

Simplified Chinese was only just introduced as an official writing language in 1949 because, get this, the majority of the population was illiterate! With 13,000 characters, many people, natives in fact, could not get the hang of the language so there was widespread illiteracy.

Don’t get me started on reading Chinese. Apart from the difficulty posed by the existence of several dialects and the two wildly disparate writing systems, reading Chinese can be hard. Since it’s a tonal language, every sound in the Chinese transcription system, Pinyin, has four distinct pronunciations.

Now comes the ridiculous part. Think it can’t get any harder? Well, hold on to your seat. Most languages have what is called a Virtuous Loop. This means that when you read in that language, your writing becomes better and this also affects your speaking skills, making you better overall.

For Chinese, there’s no virtuous loop. This means that no matter how good you get at speaking Chinese, your speaking skills will have little to no effect on your skills at writing the language and writing well does not make you a skilled reader either.

It’s no wonder that the US Department of State considers Chinese one of the (super hard languages” for native English speakers to learn. Mandarin has also been ranked as the hardest language for translators to learn. And with good reason.

What all this means is that before you can justify giving anybody your precious business or legal documents to translate into Chinese, you must be absolutely certain that they’re supremely qualified to do a quality job.

Thankfully, there are qualifications like the China Accreditation Test for Translators and Interpreters (CATTI) and the Hanyu Shuiping Kaoshi (HSK) test which are great measures of Chinese writing, reading and speaking proficiency.

Chinese culture can be shockingly different

We mentioned earlier that Chinese culture is far different from western culture. You probably don’t appreciate just how different it is.

The first thing we need to get out of the way is: culture means a lot in China. It influences pretty much every aspect of daily life, including business. It is taken quite seriously and a simple cultural misunderstanding can end a good working relationship.

China, traditionally, is a hierarchical society. A lot of premium is placed on propriety and respect. So the natural western business style of being upfront on business or legal deals and saying exactly what you intend to must be managed carefully.

This means that your documents should be carefully translated in order to avoid unnecessary friction caused by some badly chosen words. In order to ensure that your documents don’t light a fuse beneath your business deal, you need a translator that has what is called “cultural intelligence”.

They must be very familiar with both western and Chinese culture so that they can understand the real meaning in your English document and translate them as carefully as possible into their Chinese equivalents.

Your best bet in this regard is to sit with your qualified translator and determine the appropriate translation for key terms in the document. This helps you select a translation that fully conveys the intent of your document without breaching Chinese social ethics.

Legal documents are special documents

There’s a reason lawyers are very valued for their legal drafting skills. Each legal document is carefully drafted to expressly provide for a person’s rights, liabilities or obligations. This is why it is often couched in such precise language.

The language used in legal documents is so important that when even a single word is off, it can cause massive problems. Multinational corporations have gone to the legal bunkers over disputes on the meaning and effect of a single word. It gets that serious.

So when the need to translate these documents arises, their translation is often treated, quite rightly, as almost an entirely new draft of a legal document. The same amount of care is expected to be taken because the consequences can often be disastrous.

If you don’t think so, tell that to this Italian executive in a Chinese company who had several years of compensation disappear into thin air over the incorrect translation of a single word in his employment contract. It wasn’t funny to him.

And it won’t be funny to you either if you drop the translation job on that overworked secretary.

The importance of this precise translation often means that your professional translators must be steeped in a knowledge of the nature of legal documents and on occasion, the area of law they border on.

The Chinese legal system differs from most English jurisdictions

Another important consideration in English to Chinese legal document translation is the Chinese legal terrain.

While a lot of English (mostly American, Australian and British) legal documents originate from a Common law legal system, the Chinese legal system is based on Civil law. These two systems are very different from each other and documents made with either system in mind may face big problems with enforcement in another jurisdiction.

In order to avoid future problems, some lawyers advise their clients to draw up legal documents meant to be enforced in China with the Chinese legal system in mind. Apart from this, they often advise that these documents be drawn up in Chinese as well.

Now, regardless of whether you’re drawing up the document in Chinese or having it translated, the entire process must be conducted carefully, with the peculiar nature of the Chinese legal system in mind.

When the documents are being translated, either from a different style legal system or even the same, your translator needs to use words and contexts that have legal validity in China. This requires more than just a knowledge of drafting or the area of law generally.

It requires intimate knowledge of both the source and Chinese legal systems or at least enough familiarity with both to anticipate what effect the document, and its translated version, will have in China.


You’ll admit these unique requirements of English to Chinese legal document translation are not common. You won’t find many translators that can operate on this level, neither will you find many translation jobs that require this much.

Eventually, you have to admit that it takes the nothing short of the best professional translators to handle your English to Chinese legal document translation.

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