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Song Lei: 74-year-old Mastermind Brings China's Civil Code to the World


Chongqing – Since the draft of the Civil Code of the People’s Republic of China was promulgated in late 2019, Song Lei and his team at Southwest University of Political Science & Law (SWUPL) have been working for the code to go abroad.

Song Lei, the retired dean of the School of Foreign Languages of SWUPL and an honored senior Chinese translator with more than 40 legal publications, believes the English translation of the Civil Code carries great significance. The Civil Code, which came into force on January 1, 2021, is the first-ever combined codification of civil law since the People’s Republic of China was founded in 1949.

According to Song, the English translation of the code helps the world understand the latest progress in China’s practice of the rule of law. “As a necessary and crucial means of spreading Chinese law culture, the legal translation should ultimately convey the spirit of Chinese law. Its success largely depends on efforts made by translators and the development of a country,” he added.

The English translation of the Civil Code has been published by US publishers and included in a world-renowned legal database, offering an authoritative reference book on the milestone law.

Song Lei spends hours working on his laptop every day. (Photo/ Feng Lian, Liangjiang New Area Media Center)

Accuracy prevails

“Translators are like brokers,” Song said, “they make it possible for both sides in the dialogue to understand one another by accurate delivery of information. Legal language has polysemy and prescriptivity in its characteristics, and it carries profound influence and thus requires accuracy. Consequently, the legal translation should prioritize the precise delivery of meaning, followed by fluency and succinctness of language.” 

“It should make sense,” he explained. “To translate is to express in a way comprehensible by speakers of the target language.”

Zhu Yuanqing, deputy dean of the School of Human Rights of SWUPL and a translation team member, exemplified the idea. The civil subject is widely used as the English translation of the Chinese legal term that defines parties in civil-law relations that enjoy rights and perform obligations, including natural persons, legal persons, and unincorporated organizations.

Civil subject is a result of literal translation but found confusing by many foreign academicians. We conducted extensive research and consulted foreign experts, and finally translated it into Parties to Civil Legal Affairs. It is less succinct but more accurate,” said Zhu.

“Always more to learn”

Another path of Song to achieve accuracy is to put language into context, where denotative and connotative meaning can be better comprehended. As the civil law system has significantly influenced contemporary Chinese law, the team consulted more than one million words of English legal materials, including civil codes of major civil law countries, and conducted cross-references of current translations of China’s civil laws before coming up with translation advice. “It is important to learn how legal terms are used in different contexts. I could read 20 or even 30 pieces to understand a term in different contexts or spend four or five days on a better word choice. Learning and using a language are inseparable,” Song said.

The concept of learning in the context is also embedded in Song’s teaching practice, where he requires his Ph.D. students to prepare learning materials for the class instead of teaching by textbook. “I teach what they are interested in and take it as a chance to keep up with the latest happenings in legal English. Extensive reading is important if you want to translate properly,”

“There is always something more to learn. If we compare the legal translation to the 26 letters of the alphabet, I may have understood and mastered three of those in my decades of career. However, the more I learn, the more fearful I become, and now I would say I only master 2.5 letters,” Song said.

Song, at 74, is working on a Chinese-English dictionary of law terms after presiding over three editions of the English-Chinese Dictionary of Law Terms. “Legal translation is an endless journey, and I want to leave a legacy for the future generations of researchers to help,” he said.

(This article was written by Guo Shuyu, Liangjiang New Area Media Center)


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