The pitfalls of linguistic equivalence: The challenge for legal translation

Emily Poon Wai-yee

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.

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.

Full-text access is restricted to subscribers. Log in to obtain additional credentials. For subscription information see Subscription & Price. Direct PDF access to this article can be purchased through our e-platform.

[ p. 103 ]References

Au, Eric
1990 “Development of bilingual legislation in Hong Kong”. Paper presented at the Second International Conference on Language and Law in Multilingual Settings, Hong Kong, February, 1990.
Bennion, F.R.A.
1997Statutory interpretation: A code (3rd ed.). London: Butterworths.Google Scholar
Bix, Brian
1993Law, language, and legal determinacy. Oxford: Clarendon.Google Scholar
Blankenburg, Erhard
1994 “The infrastructure for avoiding civil litigation: Comparing cultures of legal behavior in the Netherlands and West Germany”. Law and society review 28:4. 789–808.   DOI logoGoogle Scholar
Casagrande, J.B.
1954 “The ends of translation”. International journal of American linguistics 20:4. 335–340.   DOI logoGoogle Scholar
Chen, Hongwei
1999 “Cultural differences and translation”. Meta XLIV: 1. 121–132.Google Scholar
Cheung, Anne S.Y.
1997 “Towards a bilingual legal system—the development of Chinese legal language”. 19 Loyola of Los Angeles international and comparative law journal. 315–336.Google Scholar
Cutts, Martin
1996 “Plain English in the law”. Statute law review 17:1. 50–61.   DOI logoGoogle Scholar
Gibson, James L. and Gregory A. Caldeira
1996 “The legal cultures of Europe”. Law and society review 30:1. 55–85.   DOI logoGoogle Scholar
Gifford, Donald
1990Statutory interpretation. Sydney: The Law Book Co.Google Scholar
Hart, H.L.A.
1961The concept of law. Oxford: Clarendon Press.Google Scholar
Keenan, Edward L.
1978 “Some logical problems in translation”. F. Guenthner and M. Guenthner-Reutter, eds. Meaning and translation: Philosophical and linguistic approaches. London: Duckworth 1978 157–190.Google Scholar
Lai, Bong Yeung Tom
1990 “The common law and the Chinese language semantic and sociolinguistic perspective”. Paper presented at the Second International Conference on Language and Law in Multilingual Settings, Hong Kong, February, 1990.
Lambert, José
1994 “The cultural component reconsidered”. Mary Snell-Hornby, Franz Pöchhacker and Klaus Kaindl, eds. Translation Studies—an interdiscipline. Amsterdam: John Benjamins 1994 16–25.   DOI logoGoogle Scholar
Langan, Paul St. John
1969Maxwell on the interpretation of statutes (12th ed.). Bombay: N.M. Tripathi.Google Scholar
Law Drafting Division, Department of Justice
1996, April “The need for consistency”. Hong Kong lawyer. 34.Google Scholar
1996, June “One word, two translations”. Hong Kong lawyer. 36.Google Scholar
1996, September “Mission impossible?Hong Kong lawyer. 36.Google Scholar
1998, May “A paper discussing cases where the two language texts of an enactment are alleged to be different”. [On-line]. Available: http://​www​.justice​.gov​.hk​/inprmain​.htm. 1–9.
1999, February “The common law and the Chinese language”. Hong Kong lawyer. 39–42.Google Scholar
[ p. 104 ]
Leung, Ying Bing
1990 “Zhong Gang Tai Sandi Falu Cihui Bijiao” [A comparative study of the legal terms used in China, Taiwan and Hong Kong]. Paper presented at the Second International Conference on Language and Law in Multilingual Settings, Hong Kong, February, 1990.
Li, Zong Er and Wai Yee Poon
1998English–Chinese dictionary of law. Hong Kong: Commercial Press.Google Scholar
Maley, Yon
1994 “The language of the law”. John Gibbons, ed. Language and the law. London: Longman 1994 11–50.Google Scholar
Martineau, Robert J.
1991Drafting legislation and rules in plain English. West Publishing Co. DOI logoGoogle Scholar
Mellinkoff, David
1963The language of the law. Boston: Little, Brown & Co.Google Scholar
Newmark, Peter
1986Approaches to translation. New York: Prentice Hall.Google Scholar
1988A textbook of translation. London: Prentice Hall.Google Scholar
1991About translation. Clevedon: Multilingual Matters.Google Scholar
1993Paragraphs on translation. Clevedon: Multilingual Matters.Google Scholar
Obenaus, Gerhard
1995 “The legal translation as information broker”. Marshall Morris, ed. Translation and the law. [= American translators association scholarly monograph series 8]. Amsterdam: John Benjamins 1995 247–259.Google Scholar
Ray, Mary Barnard and Barbara J. Cox
1991Beyond the basics: A text for advanced legal writing. St. Paul, Minn.: West Publishing Co.Google Scholar
Rey, Alain
1995Essays on terminology. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.   DOI logoGoogle Scholar
Šarcˇevic´, Susan
1997New approach to legal translation. The Hague: Kluwer Law International.Google Scholar
Schäffner, Christina
1998 “Skopos theory”. Mona Baker, ed. Routledge encyclopedia of Translation Studies. London and New York: Routledge 1998 235–238.Google Scholar
Sin, King Kui
1988 “Meaning, translation and bilingual legislation”. Paul Pupier and Jose Woehrling, eds. Proceedings of the First Conference of the International Institute of Comparative Linguistic Law. Montreal: Wilson & Lafleur Ltée 1989 509–515.Google Scholar
1992 “The translatability of law”. Thomas Hun Tak Lee, ed. Research on Chinese linguistics in Hong Kong. Hong Kong: The Linguistic Society of Hong Kong 1992 87–101.Google Scholar
1998 “The missing link between language and law: Problems of legislative translation in Hong Kong”. Kjell Herberts and Joseph G. Turi, eds. Proceedings of the Sixth International Conference on Law and Language. Finland: Åbo Akademi University 1999 195–208.Google Scholar
Sin, King Kui and Derek Roebuck
1996 “Language engineering for legal transplantation: Conceptual problems in creating common law in Chinese”. Language and communication 16:3. 235–254.   DOI logoGoogle Scholar
Soo, Francis
1990 “Reflections on Chinese language and philosophy”. Dennis J. Schmidt, ed. Hermeneutics and the poetic motion—Translation perspectives V. Binghamton: State University of New York 1990 161–173.Google Scholar
Stark, Jack
1996The art of the statute. Colorado: Fred B. Rothman & Co.Google Scholar
Thomas, Michael
1988 “The development of a bilingual legal system in Hong Kong”. Hong Kong law journal 18:1. 15–24.Google Scholar
Thornton, G.C.
1996Legislative drafting. London: Butterworths.Google Scholar
Vermeer, Hans J.
1989 “Skopos and commission in translational action”. Andrew Chesterman, ed. Readings in translation theory. Finland: Oy Finn Lectura Ab 1989 173–187.Google Scholar
[ p. 105 ]
Wong, Derry
1997 “Securing a bilingual legal system for Hong Kong”. Asia Pacific law review 5:2. 63–75. DOI logoGoogle Scholar
Wydick, Richard C.
1994Plain English for lawyers. Durham: Carolina Academic Press.Google Scholar
Xiandai Hanyu Cidian
(3rd ed.) 1996Beijing: Commercial Press.Google Scholar
Zhu, Jingwen
1994 “Comment on functional comparison”. Asia Pacific law review Special Issue: 1. 24–30.Google Scholar