Zhu Yuanqing: Why Do We Need to Translate Chinese Law?
The translation of law is an important way for Chinese law to express itself in the context of global legal pluralism. As China continues to deepen its opening up to the world, it is necessary for Chinese law to take a more open stance in transmitting Chinese legal discourse to the world. At the same time, the translation of Chinese law is not a simple linguistic conversion, but the facilitation of legal discourses between areas such as Common law, Civil law, and Islamic law.
In recent years, the legal translation team of the Southwest University of Political Science and Law has made proactive attempts to translate China's latest legislative achievements, typical judicial precedents, and academic research results into English, showing China's latest achievements in the rule of law. Why do we need to translate Chinese laws into foreign languages? What role has the translation of Chinese law played in the interaction between the East and the West? Recently, Zhu Yuanqing, former Vice Dean of the School of Foreign Languages and Vice Dean of the Human Rights Institute (School of Human Rights) at the Southwest University of Political Science and Law, shared his answers to relevant questions in an exclusive interview with "East Meets West" of the China News Service.
Zhu Yuanqing, former Vice Dean of the School of Foreign Languages and Vice Dean of the Human Rights Institute (School of Human Rights) at the Southwest University of Political Science and Law, has taught legal English, translation theory and practice, British and American culture, and professional reading since 1995. He is the author of several books, including Inside the Siege, The Great Trial, My Legal Life (Dershowitz's Autobiography), and Weeping of the Earth: The Beginning and End of the American Indian Wars. The Civil Code of the People's Republic of China (English version) was co-published by William S. Hein & Co. Wells Information Services Inc. and included in the internationally renowned legal database HeinOnline as the only English translation of The Civil Code of the People's Republic of China.
CNS: What are the stages involved in the translation of Chinese law, and how does it relate to the development of Chinese society?
Zhu: The translation of Chinese law can be divided into the following stages：
The first stage was from the end of the Ming Dynasty to the middle of the Qing Dynasty. The translators were mainly foreign diplomats, scholars, and missionaries who visited China. Their translations were neither systematic nor organised.
The second stage was from the middle of the Qing Dynasty to the early years of the Republican Period . The first complete translations of the Chinese law code appeared, but the translators were still mainly European and American, and the purpose of these translations was to essentially serve the interests of the countries or institutions to which the translators belonged, which had highly utilitarian aims.
The third stage was from around the May Fourth Movement to the eve of the founding of New China. At this stage appeared the first officially organised translation of laws. The translation not only included traditional Chinese legal texts, but also gave greater prominence to the legislative achievements of the time.
The fourth stage is from the founding of New China to the present. This stage can also be subdivided into two periods: from the founding of New China to the eve of the reform and opening up period, and then to the present. With China’s rapid economic and social development, the number of people and trade exchanges between China and other countries and regions has increased dramatically. To adapt to this situation, China has actively organised and implemented the translation of its laws. In particular, when China joined the World Trade Organisation in 2001, in order to fulfil its obligations as a member, China needed to translate its relevant laws into English to help non-Chinese become familiar with China’s rule of law and reduce trade conflict and friction, which accelerated the development of Chinese law translation.
Since the 18th National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party, with the continuous improvement of the socialist system of laws with Chinese characteristics, the translation of laws has been accelerated, contributing China’s experience and wisdom on the rule of law to the international community, shaping the image of China under the rule of law, and enhancing the country’s cultural soft power. At this stage, China (both officially and privately) was highly enthusiastic about the translation of laws and made it an integral part of reform and opening up, enhancing international exchanges, and actively participating in and promoting the process of globalisation. This proactive approach to introducing the current state of the rule of law in China to the international community has demonstrated contemporary China’s high degree of confidence in its own path, culture, and system.
The Civil Code of the People's Republic of China (English version) translated by the legal translation team of the Southwest University of Political Science and Law.
Photo by Jing Renke, China News Service
CNS: How does the translation of Chinese law present the spirit of the rule of law in China?
Zhu: The translation of Chinese law is of great significance in building China’s international discourse system, enhancing China’s global voice, helping non-Chinese people understand the progress of China’s rule of law, and conveying the international image of the rule of law. The first step in the translation of Chinese law is to accurately understand the provisions of Chinese laws and the concept of the rule of law behind them. As early as the modernisation of Chinese law began, insightful people recognised that “the translation of the law is the most challenging among translations of books”, and that translators must have sufficient knowledge and understanding of the Chinese legal system and the law of the country to which the target language belonged in order to ensure an accurate understanding of the original texts and to use a standardised and accurate translation to reproduce the spirit of the original text, not just the linguistic form of the original.
The Civil Code of the People’s Republic of China, translated by the legal translation team of the Southwest University of Political Science and Law, contains many original Chinese concepts. The term “parties to civil legal affairs”, for example, has been mostly translated as civil subjects before, but foreign jurists were confused by this translation. After much research and consultation with foreign experts, the legal translation team at the Southwest University of Political Science and Law tentatively translated the term as parties to civil legal affairs.
In addition, as law is strongly ideological, translators must stand firmly on the “Chinese position” when translating the law to ensure that the translation is not distorted or misrepresented. Only by being proficient in the languages involved can one understand the original text and reproduce the spirit of the original Chinese text in an authentic and precise target language.
The Stamp Duty Law was adopted at the 29th Session of the Standing Committee of the 13th National People’s Congress in Beijing on June 10, 2021.
Photo by Sheng Jiapeng, China News Service
CNS: The translation of Chinese law is not simply a matter of language conversion, but an exchange with the leading foreign legal discourse. What is the role of Chinese law translation in this 'back and forth' process?
Zhu: Since the modernisation and reform of the Chinese law in the late Qing Dynasty, China has long played the role of a 'follower' in the exchange of Chinese and foreign law. Modern Chinese law is basically ‘translation and transplantation’, i.e. the transplantation of foreign legal systems through translation. For 100 years, from the beginning of the 20th century, the exchange of legal discourse between China and foreign countries has been an “eastward spread of Western law”, and China has been in a position of “excess of import”, i.e. the proportion of “Chinese to non-Chinese” translations exceeded that of “Chinese to non-Chinese” translations. However, according to the 2011 statistics of the relevant industry organisations, the proportion of “Chinese to non-Chinese” translations in China exceeded that of non-Chinese to Chinese translations for the first time in history. In this process, the translation of the Chinese law has played a key role, as legal texts are among the most specialised and “hardcore” source language texts, reflecting centrally and visually the current status of a country’s rule of law.
The rule of law is the greatest consensus in international communication, and the translation of laws is the bridge for the international dissemination of the rule of law in China. Given the acute shortage of foreign translators proficient in Chinese and Chinese law, Chinese legal translators are duty-bound to work diligently and make their own contributions. The translation of the Chinese law can play the following roles in the exchange of Chinese and foreign laws:
Firstly, we have presented the current situation and development of China’s legislation and even the whole construction of the rule of law in a visual way, so that the international community knows what Chinese law is.
Secondly, through the translation of typical cases and law-related news reports, we have presented the operation of Chinese justice, so that the international community can understand how Chinese law works.
Thirdly, through major projects such as the Translation Projects of Chinese Academics, we translated the latest academic achievements in Chinese jurisprudence so that the international community can understand where the future of Chinese law is heading.
On December 4, 2014, the first National Constitution Day in China, the Supreme People’s Court held a public awareness campaign on the theme of "Let the Rule of Law Become Faith" and an open day for the public.
Photo by Li Huisi, China News Service
CNS: How can the translation of Chinese law contribute to the international dissemination of the achievements of China’s rule of law?
Zhu: From a review of the various stages of Chinese law translation, it can be seen that the main contributors to the translation of the Chinese law in the modern era were European and American, whose translations were often motivated by utilitarian purposes, and there were often cases of misinterpretation and mistranslation when translating Chinese law. Today, more than 70 years after the founding of New China and with the rapid development of China’s economy and society, China should firmly grasp the initiative in the translation of the Chinese law, stand firm on the Chinese position, expand its international outlook, introduce the achievements of China’s rule of law to the world, and promote legal exchanges between China and abroad.
Through the translation of Chinese law, the international community’s understanding of Chinese law can be further enhanced. The history of the translation of the Chinese law shows that foreign stakeholders have a utilitarian motive to understand Chinese law and to protect their legitimate interests with the help of Chinese law. Therefore, it is necessary to translate Chinese law comprehensively and accurately so as to facilitate the international community to “know China” legally, promote exchanges, and enhance the stakeholder’s understanding of Chinese law.
On August 27, 2014, China’s Supreme People’s Court held its first thematic open day for foreign envoys in China, where envoys from 21 countries and international organisations entered the Supreme Court to observe a public court hearing of a foreign-related intellectual property case.
Photo by Li Huisi, China News Service
In addition, the scope of Chinese legal texts to be translated should be expanded, not only to accurately translate laws and regulations and other hard-core legal texts that are traditionally oriented to professionals, but to also select news reports, literary works and other texts for the general public, which closely represent the current situation with China’s rule of law and the actual needs of readers, their way of thinking, and language habits. We should also translate the latest achievements of China’s rule of law in a gentle manner, by using texts such as the Top Ten Cases on the Judicial Protection of Human Rights in China in 2021.
The exchange and appreciation of civilisations between different countries and nationalities is an unstoppable trend, and professional translation commentary and criticism can enhance the quality of the translation of laws and the depth and breadth of its dissemination. Therefore, it is hoped that more translators will devote themselves to the translation of Chinese law, including laws and regulations, judicial cases, etc., to help the global dissemination of Chinese legal culture.
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