Thursday, 09 June 2016 21:41

Impact of Legal Translation on Court Judgement

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Legal translation is arguably the most complicated and most important of all types of translation. Mistranslation of a single word or sentence always imposes material impact on court judgement. In Hong Kong, it used to be the non-Chinese who served as judges back in the 20th century. As non-Chinese speakers, they had to rely on translated versions for perusal of documentary evidence. Therefore, translation was always the critical factor which affected court judgement. A case is provided below as an example:

Fu Chuen Sang and another v. Cheung Ching Tak and Others (1961)


This is a case about dispute over an estate between the deceased’s wife and son. The late husband had made a will during his living days intending to allocate (撥交) his estate to his wife after his death. His son, however, considered that the term ‘allocate’ which his father used should only be interpreted as putting the estate under his mother’s ‘custody’ on his behalf without the meaning of ‘giving’ the estate to his mother. Therefore, the English translation of the Chinese term ‘撥交’ was the critical factor which affected court judgement.

Original text of the late husband’s will:

...妻在我死後若不改嫁,則將該筆錢中之十萬元撥交予她,股票之全部權益亦由她接收。 若不能守寡,則只能得其中之五萬元,其餘五萬元撥作慈善用途。


English translation of the late husband’s will:

If my wife does not marry again after my death, she shall be assigned a hundred thousand dollars of the share money. All the rights and interests of the shares are to be taken over by my wife. If my wife is unable to remain in widowhood, she shall then be entitled to fifty thousand dollars of the share only, the remaining fifty thousand dollars shall be set aside for charities...


Court judgement:

In the English translation at the time, ‘撥交’ was translated as ‘assign’. As a result, the presiding judge decided in favour of the mother based on the legal meaning of ‘assign’ (In the British law, ‘assign’ bears the meaning of ‘absolute gift’). As a matter of fact, there are still extremely extensive room of debate over whether ‘撥交’ equates to ‘assign’. But, the case became absolutely favourable to one of the parties under influence of the translation.

It is unlikely to be the result if the said case took place in the 21st century Hong Kong. But, mistranslation of even a single word or sentence is unacceptable in legal translation, and mistakes always arise due to the translator’s negligent mistakes or incompetence in legal translation. Therefore, before the trial of a case commences, the litigation war has begun as early as the translation stage.


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