Hong Kong legal system ditches English translations

A recent South China Morning Post report suggests that Hong Kong’s legal system has not been adequately transparent about providing English-language judgments in recent months.

Hong Kong courts have historically provided judgments in both Chinese and English, which maintain co-official status in the city. As a former British colony, the region has a small minority of native English speakers living there, and about half of the country speaks the language with a high level of proficiency. However, Cantonese Chinese remains the de facto language among most native-born Hong Kongers.

According to the South China Morning Post, recent judgments in major court cases have been published only in Chinese, providing brief summaries — not translations — in English.

“One of the core features of Hong Kong’s legal system is the use of both the English and Chinese languages in court cases,” wrote the Post’s editorial board in a piece published earlier this week. “The bilingual nature of the system brings many benefits. But it requires the use of translation. This is especially important when judgments are given, to ensure they are widely understood.”

The Post’s editorial focused mainly on the case against Tam Tak-chi, a former radio presenter. Tak-chi was found guilty of sedition — the judiciary published a 26-page judgment in Chinese, however, there was no complete English-language translation of the judgment. Instead, a 400-word summary was published in English.

In recent months, the courts have given similar treatment to other major cases that have drawn a large degree of international attention. According to the Post, there is no plan to produce an English-language translation of these cases any time soon. The Post’s editorial board called on the city’s legal system to work with legal translators and produce more efficient and frequent translations into English, noting that “in a bilingual system, open justice depends on it.”

The Post’s editorial board believes the departure from using English in the legal system to be an unprecedented move. However, it also shouldn’t be particularly surprising — the overwhelming majority of Hong Kong residents speak Chinese natively. While the English language is spoken widely throughout Hong Kong, its prominence is in large part a relic of British colonization, under which English was the sole official language until the mid-1970s.

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Andrew Warner
Andrew Warner is a writer from Sacramento. He received his B.A. in linguistics and English from UCLA and is currently working toward an M.A. in applied linguistics at Columbia University. His writing has been published in Language Magazine, Sactown Magazine, and The Takeout.

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