A Translation Student at a Law Firm: Adverse Possession and “Loyalty to Original Text”
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Adding tasks to my daily to-do list.
Whenever I told my friends that I interned at a law firm, the primary response I received was: “You don’t study law, do you?” True, I don’t study law and I also doubted how I might contribute as a student who didn’t have any legal knowledge, nor experience, before this internship began. It was only later I realised what was meant by “an interdisciplinary world”, where experts from various fields can play a part in legal cases and the firm’s operation.
Stepping into the elevator at BUPA Centre in Sai Ying Pun, where Ravenscroft & Schmierer’s office is located, I was nervous yet excited. This would be the first time in my entire life that I stepped into a law firm’s office. On my way up to the 22nd floor, the nerves started kicking in and I was second guessing myself, if I was even qualified for this internship. Once I entered the front door, I was welcomed by the receptionist Catherine, who invited me to have a seat and asked if I had eaten any breakfast yet. Her sweet welcome made me feel a bit more relaxed and I gained the confidence that this was going to be an awesome adventure full of experiences and memories.
“I was nervous yet excited. This would be the first time in my entire life that I stepped into a law firm’s office.”
A gentle yet busy environment awaited me
The second member of staff I met was Bruno. Bruno guided me to my desk where I would be spending a great period of my time at and I was delighted to see that several documents, such as my internship agreement, an organisational diagram of the firm, passwords for the entrance door and a notebook were all placed tidily there. I confirmed my offer with the firm only shortly before the commencement of work, so I was surprised to see that the preparation was neatly done. “I will be with you again later, in the meantime, please take your time to carefully read our employee and compliance manual, as well as our internet and security policies, and let me know if you have any questions.” Bruno patiently set up my desk for me and Catherine showed me around and informed me where I would be able to find refreshments.
“JP, you have a call from Vanisha”, “JP, can you please sign this form for me?”, “JP, here’s a new letter, is this your client?”, “JP, do you have a minute?” Sitting with Jan-Patrik, my supervisor, in his room, I noticed colleagues knocking on his door every five to ten minutes seeking his advice, ranging from marketing, accounting, operational and client matters. Bruno also told me he received dozens of emails in just one morning. Me, on the other hand, a fresh face to the firm, received about 10 emails on my third morning and I was already slightly panicking.
Prioritising tasks was essential
My tasks for the morning included integrating data and summarising it into an excel sheet, drafting emails, reading, and proofreading documents. Receiving so many requests at once, I needed to prioritise my work, list them out and finish them one by one, calmly yet carefully. Although everyone had their own work, they were still very caring to other colleagues. Bruno mentioned to me a few times “let me know if you have any problems”, “if you don’t understand the instructions, just come by my desk”. In addition, it took me quite a while just to figure out how the scanner operated despite the demonstrations done. I was really moved when Annie, our accountant, and Catherine both came over and offered me their help, even though there was a lot going on at their own desks too.
I realised that an intern working under such an atmosphere must be calm, organised and quick-in-action as there can be a lot of tasks coming in all at once. That said, if I politely asked for help or clarifications, there was always someone willing to assist. Discussing tasks with a colleague.
Translation with “loyalty to original text” rather than “elegance”
During my month-long internship, I also had the privilege to work on a Chinese-to-English translation project, translating dozens of plaintiff and defendants’ exhibits that would be presented to court in the following months. The case I assisted with was about adverse possession, a rather unique legal principle that Hong Kong inherited through English law. Simply put, a person may acquire legal ownership of a property - usually land, a flat or building - without the consent of its legal owner, by occupying that property continuously.
In the Anglo-American common law tradition, courts have in such cases ruled that when the owner does not exercise their right to recover the property for a certain period of time, the adverse possessor (also known as squatter) becomes the new legal owner. These disputes can happen when the landlord dies, moves abroad, a family member resides in the property, but also about common parts of an industrial building, deserted farmland, little shops on the side of an alley, or other open areas.
In Hong Kong, the squatterwill have to be in adverse possession of the property for up to 20 years without the consent of the original owner.
At the beginning of my internship, I thought English was valued most, as the firm serves many international clients. But as a good number of colleagues did not read and write Chinese at a native level, I found out that my knowledge of Chinese became an asset during my internship.
“The case I assisted with was about adverse possession, a rather unique legal principle that Hong Kong inherited through English common law.”
As a translation student, I was also able to provide knowledge and gain practical experience. Michael, one of our associates (a term used for junior qualified lawyers), and I discussed what we should do if there was no official equivalent for a word, such as where some shops only have Chinese names. I immediately recalled my translation trainings at school. In advertisement or literature, translators enjoy more flexibility in the “re-creation” of content. Yet, in official documents, like the ones I was handling, it would be inappropriate for a translator to make anything up. Jyut ping (Cantonese pinyin) should be used instead.
While translating a letter which was sent to our client by the government, I also encountered issues with the letter format. In Chinese, an official letter puts the recipients' name and the date at the bottom of the letter; in English, most letters start with “Dear [name]” and the date is on the top left-hand corner. As a translation student, I was more aware of these bicultural differences, so I quickly raised them to Michael.
Literal translation is not so preferred in usual translation but in some circumstances, it may be inevitable. In the end, I shared with Michael, that on an official document we should prioritise “loyalty to original text” rather than “elegance”. This was more convenient for the lawyers and for the judge to read and can protect our clients’ documents from being challenged.
Excel spreadsheets and attention to detail
Yet, the internship experience at Ravenscroft & Schmierer also taught me to be extremely careful. As a translation student, I am used to paying detailed attention to each line of the translated text and each word I pick. But tasks here were more than just dealing with language alone. While creating an Excel sheet and integrating responses from two different forms, I made some hyperlinks so that, for instance, when I pressed the box F6, it would jump to the information in box A23. Little did I notice that a small change like inserting a new row would make all the hyperlinks invalid because A23 would then turn to A24.
“My tasks up to this moment helped me acquire one character trait of a good lawyer – cautiousness.”
This was just an example which revealed my unfamiliarity with Excel, yet it also served as a reminder to stay focused. I must check every detail carefully to avoid confusion and more work. Since that day, I implemented the mindset to "better be safe than sorry". When my colleagues asked me to send emails or draft an agreement, I checked every minor part deliberately. For instance, whether the email addresses were correct or if there was a typo in the content. My tasks up to this moment helped me acquire one character trait of a good lawyer – cautiousness.
Everyone on the team counts
I am grateful that Michael had trust in me and allowed me to express my views from a translation perspective. The task, on the other hand, allowed me to learn more about legal and workplace translation. Law is undoubtedly a profession that requires a lot of training. That said, a law firm's operation is more complicated than what we often see on TVB shows. Winning a case requires not just the barristers’ skills but also backstage effort, including that from colleagues who are preparing the documents, picking up phone calls and sending letters by hand. To attract clients and staff, experts in marketing also have their roles to play. The experience here made me more firmly believe in my abilities and expertise. Every discipline was valued. Everyone on the team counts.
Athena Wong is a third-year Translation and American Studies student at the University of Hong Kong and aspires to work in the legal field upon graduation.