Introduction and Sources
Since 2002, Taiwan’s national government (through the cabinet-level Research, Development, and Evaluation Commission) has been urging all government agencies to create bilingual websites. In tandem with this effort, many agencies have been working to complete English translations of the core laws in their jurisdictional areas for publication on their websites, to make Taiwan’s laws more accessible to those who do not read Chinese. Although such translations are for reference only and the Chinese text always governs1, the agencies are making efforts to produce accurate and serviceable English versions. Also, in 2003, Taiwan’s Executive Yuan (Cabinet) published its first official guidelines for the standard translation of some key legal terminology.
Even before these recent initiatives, reference translations of some Taiwanese laws had been available from various sources for several decades, but the translations available at any given time varied in quality (some excellent, some less so) and up-to-dateness. And despite the recent advances, a number of challenges remain in producing more complete and standardized translations of Taiwanese law.
For a list of sources, please refer to Online Sources of English Translations of Taiwanese Law.
Standardizing Taiwanese Legal Terms in English
The task of translating Taiwan’s laws into English is impeded by the paucity of authoritative guidelines and resources for standardizing the English terminology used in translations. Such standardization is difficult because Taiwan’s legal system historically is a civil law system modeled after aspects of the German, Japanese, Swiss, and French systems. While a certain legal term in Taiwan may have a clear counterpart in a language such as German or Japanese, the term, or the legal concept it represents, may not have a ready counterpart in English2.
The lack of authoritative translation guidelines is reflected in the inconsistent English names by which individual laws have been known in the past. For example, Taiwan’s basic corporate governance law, the Company Act, has historically been referred to by various names in English, including the “Company Law,” “Company Act,” and “Corporate Statute.” This kind of inconsistent terminology is already widely scattered across the Internet, compounding the potential for further confusion.
2003 Legal Translation Guidelines
The prospects for consistent English terminology in translating Taiwanese law brightened when the first (and as of today still the only) official guidelines relating to English legal translation were issued through a formal letter by Taiwan’s Executive Yuan (Cabinet) on 3 July 2003. These brief guidelines (entitled the Table of Standard English Translations of Legislative Nomenclature and referred to as the Table of Standard Translations below) specify standard nomenclature to be used in the translated names of, and in citations to, Taiwanese legislation. The Table of Standard Translations is critical to the English translation of Taiwanese law, so I introduce some key terminology from the Table and related concepts below.
“Act,” “Regulation,” and “Direction”
The two main categories of written law under Taiwan’s Constitution are: (1) statutes (法律) enacted by the national legislature and promulgated by the president, and (2) statutory regulations (法規命令, referred to simply as “regulations” below) issued by a government agency that has been authorized to do so under an enabling statute, either specifically or by authorized power of office. The hierarchy of authority is clear-cut: a statute may not conflict with the constitution (and is void if it does), and a regulation may not conflict with any statute.3
One source of past confusion is that, according to Taiwan’s National Legislation Standards Act, any of four different Chinese terms ( 法, 律, 條例, 通則) may be used in the name of a statute to identify it as a statute (without actually using the word “statute” in the name). Similarly, any of seven different Chinese terms may be used in the name of a regulation to identify it as a regulation.
These variant Chinese terms in the names of statutes and regulations have no bearing on the relative authority of one statute over another or one regulation over another. They are merely descriptive, in a general way, of the type of subject matter addressed. Taiwan has therefore decided to simplify things in English by using the English word “Act” across the board in the translated names of Taiwanese statutes and the English word “Regulation” across the board in the translated names of regulations.4 The rationale is that this will immediately inform an English reader whether a piece of legislation falls in the higher category of a legislature-enacted statute or in the lower category of an agency-issued regulation.
In addition to issuing regulations under authority vested in them by statutes, Taiwan’s government agencies often issue guidelines governing their internal operations and procedures or giving general instructions to subordinate agencies or officers. These may be published for public reference, but are not directly binding on the public. Such guidelines are collectively referred to in Chinese as “administrative directions” (行政規則), but individually are issued under a variety of different Chinese names that literally translate into various terms such as “procedural key points,” “principles,” and “matters for attention” (作業要點, 原則, 注意事項). To help distinguish such administrative guidelines from binding statutory regulations, the Table of Standard Translations prescribes that the English word “Directions” be used across the board to translate the names of such guidelines, regardless of their actual names in Chinese.
Besides setting out standard nomenclature for the English names of Taiwan’s statutes, regulations, and administrative directions, the Table of Standard Translations also prescribe standard English terms to be used when citing legislation. Statutes and regulations are divided into the basic unit of “articles,” which may be further subdivided into “paragraphs,” “subparagraphs,” and “items” (條, 項, 款, 目).
The articles of longer statutes and regulations may also be grouped into “parts,” “chapters,” “sections,” “subsections,” and “items” (編, 章, 節, 款, 目). Articles newly inserted by amendments may be indicated by the number of the preceding article plus a hyphenated numerical suffix -1, -2, -3, etc. (equivalent in function to the bis, ter, quater…sometimes used for the same purpose in legislation abroad). The Table of Standard Translations also gives generic English names for four general chapter headings found in many of Taiwan’s statutes: General Principles, General Provisions, Penal Provisions, Supplementary Provisions (總則, 通則, 罰則, 附則).
Further Issues in the Translation of Taiwanese Law
The terminology introduced above is essentially the extent of the brief official Table of Standard Translations. So translators are still left largely to their own devices in deciding what English term is the most appropriate translation of a given Chinese legal term in Taiwan. Some other quasi-official reference materials are available in the form of bilingual lexicons posted on the websites of some government agencies. And, of course, existing English translations of statutes and regulations published by government agencies also provide valuable reference material to translators.
Taiwan does not have a single ministry or agency in charge of producing translations. Individual agencies handle the translation of key statutes and regulations within their purview. For example, the Taiwan Intellectual Property Office currently handles the translation of patent, copyright, and trademark regulations, the Securities and Futures Bureau and related agencies coordinate the translation of capital markets regulations, and so forth. These agencies may assign staff to produce translations internally or may outsource translation work through government procurement procedures. The practice of making government agencies responsible for translations within their own areas of competency has helped to maintain fair (though still varying) quality in translations.
A basic issue in legal translation between any languages is that the “legal meaning” of a word (the word’s meaning in a specific legal context) may differ from the plain language meaning of the word. A competent translator of legal texts must firmly grasp the legal meaning of a term before deciding on the appropriate translation for it in the target language. The legal meaning may derive from customary usage in the legal field or from a definition written into a statute or regulation. For example the Chinese term for “mergers and acquisitions” (併購) is specifically defined in Taiwan’s Business Mergers and Acquisitions Act as including not just “mergers” and “acquisitions” but also “demergers.”5 When translating the term in a context dictated by that act, the translator needs to be aware of this extra meaning and may need to convey it in the translation or in a note to the translation.
A further point to bear in mind when reading Taiwan’s laws, whether in Chinese or in translation, is that when a statute or regulation is amended, some or all of the amended articles may be designed to take effect on a later date. In many cases this is not immediately apparent from the text of the articles in question. For this reason, readers should also consult the legislative history (a list of past amendments, the articles affected, and the dates of effectiveness) that is published along with the text of the statute or regulation.
Resources for Finding Taiwanese Law in English
In a separate entry, we have compiled a reference list of some websites containing Chinese and English texts of various Taiwanese laws. (All of the websites listed are free of charge except for the Lawbank database, which provides limited access for free but requires a paid subscription for full access.)
- The official language of the law in Taiwan is Chinese, and the Chinese-language versions of Taiwan’s laws are the only authoritative versions. It bears emphasizing though that while Chinese is the official language of the law in both Taiwan and China, the two countries have very different legal systems, and identical Chinese language terms may have fundamentally different meanings in each.
- In recent years, especially in the areas of administrative and criminal law, Taiwan’s lawmakers have increasingly also consulted the law of English-speaking countries when drafting legislation, and this naturally eases the job of producing subsequent English translations.
- In addition to the Constitution, statutes, and regulations, Taiwan’s system also recognizes, to varying extents, other sources of law including treaties and international agreements, emergency orders, certain court decisions and orders and interpretations by government agencies, customs, scholarly treatises, and legal principles.
- To this general rule, the Table of Standard Translations also specifies a few exceptions, as follows: five of Taiwan’s basic statutes are to be named in English “Code” (rather than “Act”): the Civil Code, Criminal Code, Code of Civil Procedure, Code of Criminal Procedure, and Code of Administrative Procedure; and two categories of regulations (施行細則, 標準) are to be named respectively “Enforcement Rules” and “Standards” (rather than “Regulations”).
- Business Mergers and Acquisitions Act, Art. 4(1)(ii).
Written September 15, 2007 By Paul Cox.