By Bryan Lewis

This is a brief review of "Bridging the gap between language and law" by Clara Ho-yan Chan in babel Vol 58 No 2 /2012 that was forwarded to me by Fred Uleman from materials received by JAT. Chan is Assistant Professor in the Department of Chinese, Translation and Linguistics at the City University of Hong Kong.

The article describes some of the difficulties arising from a new situation in Hong Kong following the return of sovereignty to China in 1997. Until then the official and therefore the legal language in Hong Kong was English but following the political change Chinese also became an official language and so the existing body of law had to be translated into Chinese. Chan describes this process in part as, "creating a new legal Chinese language". She describes this from the point of view of translating English common law into Chinese and the difference in legal ideas in Hong Kong and China Mainland and how this effects language.

She describes further how the attempt to translate the English laws literally into Chinese is leading to a distortion of local Chinese and to some unnatural terms and expressions.

The discussion of the new legal terms, some newly coined, are illustrated with Chinese examples but most should be accessible to readers of Japanese. It is interesting to compare some of these terms with Japanese legal terms with a similar meaning. Legal Japanese in its modern form has been in existence much longer and I believe was influenced by German rather than English legal expressions. Of course there was also the writing of the constitution in mid 20th century which overlay an American influence.

I think it would be very interesting if some knowledgeable person could do a comparison of new Chinese terms which Chan says are regarded as "poisoning everyday Chinese" and the perceived effect on Japanese of introducing western legal concepts and the vocabulary to express them over a much longer period. From the point of view of translation it would also be interesting to know how far western legal concepts and the vocabulary to express them has been altered by Japanese concepts of law and how far it is safe to translate these terms back using the meaning they originally had in their source languages.

Chan also discusses the effect the fairly literal translation of the legal texts is having on the syntax of Chinese in Hong Kong. She believes that this goes beyond the use of the laws in courts and has an effect on generally spoken Chinese. This reminded me of "how to" books about "logical thinking" often written by Japanese women trained by companies such a McKinsey instructing Japanese business men how to write "logical Japanese". It seems to me that such works although no doubt intended to help business men think their way through problems rationally is also having the effect of changing the syntax of Japanese sentences and paragraphs to a degree. Is there anyone else that has noticed this and is willing to comment on it?

My intention in writing the above is not to give a full review of the article but to whet the appetite of others to read the article and hopefully start a discussion as to how the issues raised in it may be applicable to translation and language development in Japan.