Translation errors cause disputes over contract terms

Updated: 2012-03-23 08:04

By Zhou Wenting in Shanghai (China Daily)

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Translation errors cause disputes over contract terms

Some companies try to save money by hiring students instead of lawyers

Translation errors in key contract terms have been responsible for igniting disputes between Chinese and foreign companies, the Shanghai Maritime Court said on Thursday after reviewing archives in the past two years.

"Although such cases account for less than 5 percent of all cases, the avoidable mistakes brought about significant losses, especially to the Chinese side," said Ying Xinlong, president of the court.

The court heard 1,981 cases about maritime and commercial affairs in 2011.

"The level of translation in the shipping field and navigation law shows a disparity with the municipality's status as an international metropolis and an international shipping center," Ying said.

In a case last year, "drydocking" was mistranslated as "tank washing" and "except fuel used for domestic service" was misinterpreted as "except fuel used for domestic flights" in the contract terms when it was translated from English to Chinese.

That caused controversies between the Chinese and foreign parties about their rights and obligations as well as their share of costs.

Some expressions are sanctioned by usage instead of literal interpretation, which are well-known by industry insiders but are strange to common translators, according to Jin Xiaofeng, a judge in the court.

"There are loads of translation agencies in Shanghai and in the nation, but the quality is varied, and professional translators that have expertise in a particular aspect are scarce," he said.

Some managers of translation agencies said some of their fellow translators accept any business and assign the work to college students doing part-time jobs instead of lawyers to save costs.

"It's difficult to translate contracts even if the student translator outperforms his or her classmates in a foreign language university," said Zhang Suping, who has been in the trade for nearly a decade.

Full-time translators at the agencies are not that skillful in working on contract translation work, he added, otherwise they would work for legal departments of foreign enterprises and law firms, which would bring in better pay.

Li Yan, a college teacher in Shanghai who has worked part time for a translation agency for two years, said she first seeks help from professional and translation websites when she bumps into topics she is unfamiliar with or even ignorant about.

"I'll also refer to professional online periodicals, which are reliable for being proofread before publication," she said, adding she gets translation work in various subjects from the agency.

Chao Ying-jan, a freelance translator based in Shanghai and Taiwan, said the ability to find valid research is crucial for professional translators in the Internet age.

"Online research has become much less time-consuming but not necessarily trustworthy. Cross-checking and verification have become more important," she said.

Translation companies need to put emphasis on training translators in specialized fields and on the study of translation methods for contracts that are internationally accepted, said Xie Chen, vice-president of the Shanghai Maritime Court.

He suggested training an expert panel with government funds to deal with translation and other document work in technical fields to help realize Shanghai's mission of becoming an international shipping center by 2020.

(China Daily 03/23/2012 page4)