The pitfalls of linguistic equivalence: The challenge for legal translation

Emily Poon Wai-yee

Abstract

This paper discusses the problems of legislative translation in Hong Kong through the study of the rules adopted by the Department of Justice to select equivalent lexical terms and from the examination of the sentence structure and legislative expressions in pre-modern and modern ordinances. While literal translation can be effective in achieving “equal intent” on comparison with the original text, this paper will examine supplementary approaches in an attempt to address the problems and contradictions previously experienced in legislative translation and to increase the effectiveness of the translated text.

Keywords
Table of contents

When Hong Kong became a British colony under the Treaty of Nanking in 1842, its legal system began to be modelled on the common law system of Britain. The return of sovereignty to Mainland China in 1997 turned a new page in the legal history of Hong Kong. Long before the signing of the Sino- British Joint Declaration in 1984, there was concern that the justice pertaining to the “common law system” of Hong Kong would be undermined, as the territory’s future prosperity and stability hinged very much on the continuation of a sound legal system. The Joint Declaration promised to give Hong Kong a high degree of autonomy by implementing the “one country, two systems” policy. It gave incentive for the establishment of a bilingual legal system, when it provided in Annex I that Hong Kong (including its judicial system) would [ p. 76 ]remain unchanged for 50 years and in addition to Chinese, English could be used in the courts. The principles of the Joint Declaration were enshrined in a Basic Law promulgated in April 1990. A Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (hereinafter “HKSAR” or “Hong Kong”) was established in 1997 upon China’s resumption of sovereignty over Hong Kong. According to Article 18 of the Basic Law, the main laws in force in Hong Kong shall be the Basic Law itself, the laws previously in force in Hong Kong, which include the common law and the rules of equity, and the laws enacted by the HKSAR legislature. Article 9 of the Basic Law also provides that the legislature and the judiciary of Hong Kong may use English in addition to Chinese, as an official language.

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