Mandarin translation issues impeding the courts in New York

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"Mandarin Leaves a Manhattan Courtroom Lost in Translation:  Trial of Guo Wengui shows how linguistic issues can trip up China-related cases", by James T. Areddy, WSJ (6/18/24)


The New York trial of a Chinese businessman is Exhibit A for how language issues are gumming up federal prosecutions of Mandarin-speaking defendants.

Nearly everyone in the lower Manhattan courtroom appears frustrated by a halting process that requires translation of Chinese-language videos, documents and witness testimony.

It is one in a series of high-profile China-linked cases that are similarly getting lost in translation. Chinese-language evidence is piling up, unintelligible to attorneys. Translations are slow, and sometimes wrong. There is a limited pool of top-tier Mandarin court interpreters, and they can disagree on English translations. And for both sides in a trial, the work of interpreters provides ammunition for legal wrangling, from gamesmanship to courtroom objections and possible appeals.

It's hard enough to bring clarity to legal issues in monolingual cases.  But things get really tough when there are controversies over the meaning of testimony in a foreign language that is being adduced as evidence in the legal process.

Introducing any foreign language to a legal case can add confusion to an already complex process. The challenges mount when it is a language like Mandarin that is unintelligible to 99% of people in the U.S.

A study in translation stress is playing out in the Manhattan federal trial of the Chinese businessman, Guo Wengui, whom the government accuses of perpetrating a $1 billion fraud tied to fundraising for his anti-Beijing political activities.

I wonder whether innately there is any greater difficulty in dealing with Mandarin language issues in American courtrooms than, say, for Hindi or German.  It seems to me that a lot of the problems pertaining to Mandarin language proceedings in American courtrooms have to do with cultural and procedural matters as much as with linguistic aspects.

June Teufel Dreyer comments:

Judging from the expert witness work I did for immigration cases here in Miami, it’s not just the spoken language that’ll be a problem.  Would-be immigrants had officially chopped documents that were pretty clearly bought and paid for, possibly some were forged as well.   And Guo is both wily enough and rich enough to hire the best

Another colleague who has served as an expert witness and reviewed Chinese documents commented that, while ‘official’ translations of documents were typically literally (i.e., Chinese 101) correct, they were frequently devoid of nuance (e.g., how things were said, why specific words were used, etc.). Accordingly, if available, the colleague always asked for the source Chinese documents.

Turning to specific linguistic questions regarding colloquial Mandarin, the WSJ article continues:

Chinese can be highly nuanced and the same word can have different meanings depending on the context.

Such a challenge helped torpedo a sensational Justice Department case against an ethnic Tibetan New York policeman charged with spying on behalf of Beijing in 2020. The allegation was built on dozens of intercepted phone calls between the officer and a Chinese consular official—and apparently misconstrued Mandarin colloquialisms. 

For instance, prosecutors considered the officer’s use of a Mandarin word for “boss” as evidence he was signaling subservience to the Chinese official, while the officer’s defense attorney said the term was the defendant’s way of texpressing gratitude for help on a complex travel visa application. “The fact that it was in a foreign language created an opportunity to use inaccurate translation to fit their story,” said the defense attorney, John F. Carman. The case was eventually dropped.

In my estimation, court proceedings that involve extensive submission of documents in foreign languages could be greatly facilitated by AI translations, but always vetted by certifiably competent bilingual translators.


Selected readings

[Thanks to Mark Metcalf]


  1. Chris Button said,

    June 20, 2024 @ 5:47 am

    Chinese can be highly nuanced and the same word can have different meanings depending on the context.

    Hmm… not a sentence that makes me want to take this journalist's writing seriously.

  2. Chris Button said,

    June 20, 2024 @ 5:50 am

    Three extra words at the start could have saved it: "Like any language, Chinese can be highly nuanced …"

  3. Philip Taylor said,

    June 20, 2024 @ 6:35 am

    I am intrigued by the use of the phrase "officially chopped documents". A quick Google search discloses what "chopped" means in this context, but the word itself would appear to be Cantonese in origin because of the final consonant. If my hypothesis is correct, how would "chopped" be expressed in Putonghua, and why is "chopped" so ubiquitous given that the official language of the PRC is Putonghua ?

  4. Victor Mair said,

    June 20, 2024 @ 6:45 am

    Good questions, Philip Taylor.

    From Wiktionary:

    Borrowed from Hindi छाप (chāp, “stamp”). Closely related to the similarly descended Malay word cap, which likely reinforced the English usage within the Malay world.

    chop (plural chops)

    (colloquial, India, Hong Kong, Malaysia, Singapore, Brunei) A stamp or seal; a mark, imprint or impression on a document (or other object or material) made by stamping or sealing a design with ink or wax, respectively, or by other methods. [from 19th c.]
    (colloquial, by extension, Malaysia, Singapore, Brunei) The device used for stamping or sealing, which also contains the design to be imprinted.
    A mark indicating nature, quality, or brand.

    silk of the first chop

    A license or passport that has been sealed.
    A complete shipment.

    a chop of tea

  5. Philip Taylor said,

    June 20, 2024 @ 6:56 am

    Thank you Victor. So not Cantonese at all — I should not have rushed to conclusions based solely on spelling ! But I would still be interested to know how "chopped" (in this context) would be expressed in Putonghua, and the extent to which the latter is used in comparison to the seemingly ubiquitous "chopped".

  6. Scott Mauldin said,

    June 20, 2024 @ 6:59 am

    The use of the term "chop" threw me as well when I was first looking at moving to China. It is taken by Chinese officials to be a perfectly common English word that they use freely with Americans without context, however its regular use seems to be mostly confined to south Asian English (HK, Singapore, etc)

  7. Victor Mair said,

    June 20, 2024 @ 7:08 am

    gài zhāng 蓋章 (v. "stamp; affix a seal")

  8. J.W. Brewer said,

    June 20, 2024 @ 7:33 am

    I'd say that "chop" is the standard English word for its referent, but that referent is ubiquitous in many East/Southeast Asian societies but quite rare in North America, thus giving rise to the confusion. Consider by comparison the Americanism (?) "to rubber-stamp." It doesn't quite match up, because in U.S. culture the idea of using a rubber stamp on a document to indicate approval rather than signing a relevant document by hand suggests that the approver is just going through the motions and not devoting any real thought to the decision, whereas in East Asian culture it would be much more customary to use a chop rather than signing-by-hand to execute an important document that you had in fact put considerable thought into before deciding to agree to it.

    Working with translators in a legal-testimony context (which is a bit different than a legally-significant-document context because the translation of the testimony is happening in real time) is almost always a hassle in any context that isn't completely routine. And it gets trickier when the witness himself/herself is reasonably fluent in English but feels more comfortable testifying in their own language – because they listen to what the translator says and then sometimes interject (in English!) to say that whatever the translator just said in English did not accurately convey the answer they had just given in French or what have you.

  9. J.W. Brewer said,

    June 20, 2024 @ 7:49 am

    I should have added that it is not uncommon for people who work as translators in the court system to have gotten pretty good at the sort of jargon that comes up in the relevant language repeatedly in a court-system context, which for e.g. Spanish or Mandarin (and many other languages associated with recent immigrant groups in a U.S. context) is typically going to be the language used in situations relevant to drug prosecutions or disputes about immigration status and the like. If you instead have a case involving complicated international financial transactions, whether or not alleged to be fraudulent (I haven't dealt with this personally in Mandarin but I did once have to deal with it in Spanish in a case involving a major Mexican company that had raised a lot of money selling bonds to U.S. investors but was trying to restructure its debt because it had gotten overleveraged) the experienced hands at drug-and-immigration genres of testimony don't necessarily know the right register and specialized jargon in the language with the facility necessary to handle the very different sort of testimony.

  10. Kent McKeever said,

    June 20, 2024 @ 8:02 am

    Given Victor's citation of the etymology of "chop," isn't it likely a development of the opium trade? I forget where I put my Hobson-Jobson.

  11. Philip Taylor said,

    June 20, 2024 @ 8:22 am

    I know where my copy is, Kent (never far from hand!) and there is a long entry on "chop" commencing on p.~152. No obvious mention of opium, but I may have missed it …

  12. Victor Mair said,

    June 20, 2024 @ 8:30 am

    Until today, now that I've looked it up, I was always puzzled by the expression "to have chops" meaning "skill, ability". I always thought that it meant "have / earned / acquired the credentials" to perform / do something, sort of like gathering / garnering all the chops necessary as used in the article cited in the o.p.


    chops pl (plural only)

    (slang) Jaws, lips, mouth.

    Alternative form: chaps

    (originally US jazz slang) One's skill at musical interpretation and delivery; musical performance ability.

    Although the bass player had no experience playing in New Orleans, the crowd's enthusiastic response showed that he had the chops to make it in the very particular Crescent City jazz scene.

    (informal, by extension) One's skill at any endeavor; ability, talent; competency.

    Although he did not know all of the ins and outs of the newsroom, he had the writing chops to become a regular contributor.


  13. AntC said,

    June 20, 2024 @ 7:45 pm

    (originally US jazz slang) One's skill at musical interpretation and delivery; musical performance ability.

    The jazz slang sense “musical ability” is a reference to the use of the lips to blow instruments [Wiktionary]

    Although your quote is about a bass player, the phrase originally applied for wind players, especially saxophone because of the need to keep the reed wet and exactly positioned relative to the airflow. Similarly brass players' 'embouchure'. Dizzy Gillespie has particularly noticeable chops/puffed cheeks blowing the distinctively 'bent' bell of his trumpet.

  14. gds555 said,

    June 20, 2024 @ 10:26 pm

    It sounds to me as if a civil case in which one person sues another over the proper stamping of an Asian document could easily turn into legal chop suey.

  15. AntC said,

    June 21, 2024 @ 12:12 am

    Get those documents translated chop-chop 速速

  16. Calvin said,

    June 21, 2024 @ 5:59 am

    What about 戳 (chuō), close enough to "chop"?

    戳 ― stamp; seal
    蓋戳子/盖戳子 ― gài chuōzi ― to affix a seal

  17. stephen said,

    June 21, 2024 @ 6:35 pm

    What about chopsticks? And did the term chopsticks ever have any other application?
    Is there any connection with chop shops?

  18. Philip Taylor said,

    June 22, 2024 @ 4:35 am

    I would hazard a guess that the "chop" of "chopsticks" (筷子/ kuàizi) is the same "chop" (indicating speed) as in Ant's "chop-chop (速速)".

  19. Victor Mair said,

    June 22, 2024 @ 5:20 am

    American Heritage Dictionary, 5th ed.

    [Chinese Pidgin English chop, quick; see chop-chop + stick (on the model of Mandarin kuàizi, chopstick : kuài, chopstick (from kuài, quick, taboo replacement of earlier zhù, chopstick, used by boatmen to avoid saying the homonym zhù, to stop) + -zi, n. suff.; see gyoza).]

    [Japanese gyōza, from Mandarin jiǎozi : jiǎo, stuffed dumpling (from earlier jiǎo, horn (in reference to its shape), from Middle Chinese kja⋮wk) + -zi, n. suff. (from Middle Chinese tsẓ´, son, child, ultimately from Proto-Sino-Tibetan *tsa; akin to Tibetan tsha, grandchild).]

  20. Stephen said,

    June 23, 2024 @ 3:59 pm

    I'd say that "chop" is the standard English word for its referent, but that referent is ubiquitous in many East/Southeast Asian societies but quite rare in North America

    I've no idea if that is true, but the first time I( came across 'chop' with this meaning was in The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress
    by Bob Heinlein who was from the US.

  21. Michael Watts said,

    June 27, 2024 @ 3:29 am

    I'd say that the standard English word is "seal". Asian seals are still called seals. They are also called chops, in particular contexts, but that is a much more unusual word.

    Granted, "seal" in the sense of a device representing authorization of a document is fairly rare itself, but much less so than "chop".

  22. Philip Taylor said,

    June 27, 2024 @ 4:18 am

    Agreed, Michael, certainly for British English. "Chop" was unknown to me prior to this thread, "seal" known since childhood.

  23. Victor Mair said,

    June 27, 2024 @ 5:18 am

    "Chop" is one of those English words that is known primarily to those who are particularly interested in Chinese studies / history. It is like "likin", a kind of tax, which you probably don't know either, Philip, the difference being that "chop" has minimally made the jump into general English usage, as in this case (the WSJ article).

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