The language of cross-border trade

28 February 2023

The language of cross-border trade

If language is a barrier, how does communication happen? Excel V. Dyquiangco examines the importance of having a common language for cross-border trade and how English remains predominant among the other languages used for international communication. 

The term “global value chains” (GVCs) has gained enormous popularity in the last 10 years; it describes how services, activities and goods are designed, produced, assembled, marketed and distributed internationally. The functional and spatial fragmentation that has occurred within GVCs has altered the global economic landscape, which has led to new policy challenges for both OECD and emerging countries, including trade policy, competitiveness, upgrading and innovation, and the management of global systemic risk. 

To facilitate international trade and foster understanding among these interconnected global economies, it is crucial to be able to communicate across language boundaries, which includes the language in intellectual property. But what if patent or trademark applications are not filed in the English language? 

With the United States influencing the language norms of the Philippines with their English as with the United Kingdom to Singapore, Malaysia, Hong Kong and India with theirs, this brings to question why the French language didn’t take over Indochina or Dutch in Indonesia. 

It is important to note that many French cultural influences still exist in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia, among many other countries conquered by France. But perhaps the reason why the French language did not remain common in these countries after the colonial period is because it has not been used as an international language to the same degree as English. Thailand, on the other hand, does not have a colonial connection to any European country but generally uses English in communicating with international partners. However, Chinese and a few other languages are also used in some situations. 

In retrospect, French and Dutch are more difficult to learn than English. Unlike English, French nouns are gendered similar to how Dutch nouns have a grammatical gender, which is only one of the factors that make these two languages more difficult. 

Political events of the day played a large part in entrenching English, relative to the languages of other European colonial powers. To illustrate, the imposition of Vietnamese as the language of the country by the communist takeover of Vietnam in 1975 saw the dismantling of the French language in that country. Pol Pot’s regime oversaw the mass killings of intellectuals in Cambodia (most of whom were French educated), virtually eradicating the French language there by 1979. 

The only country of the former Indochina that still retains French as a significant minority presence is Laos. But its use there continues to decline as it is used mostly among the older generation, and the younger population prefers to speak English. Arguably, the harsh regime changes in the countries forming Indochina also contributed to the decline of the French language in the region, coupled with the extent of the British Empire.  

Language, patents and trademarks 

According to Ann Lai, a partner and attorney-at-law at Chien Yeh & Associates in Taipei, “if the Dutch language had been forcibly promoted and the local residents forced to give up their native language, this would have meet fierce resistance from the local residents, which would not have been conducive to the Dutch colonial occupation of Indonesia.” She explained how important language is in cross-border trade and that showcasing this in a larger audience is necessary.  

“International trade and supply chains are essential to the economic growth of any country. Even small countries like Singapore and Hong Kong trade internationally on a massive scale; however, this could be difficult without multilingual agreements. Hence, learning a common language and understanding the different cultures become two essential factors in international trade success,” she said.   

She also noted that people who can’t read Chinese would have difficulties reading trademark or patent information disclosed on the Taiwan Intellectual Property Office website. This would propel them to find local attorneys or translators to help them understand the Chinese information. 

“For instance, ‘bubble tea’ means ‘milk tea with tapioca balls’ in Chinese. An inexperienced translator or attorney may translate it as sparkling tea if they translate word by word. ‘Notebooks’ in Class 9 should refer to ‘notebook computers’ in Chinese. An inexperienced translator or attorney may translate it as ‘a small book with blank or ruled pages for writing notes in’ in Chinese,” she explained. “For a foreign applicant, finding a professional attorney to deal with trademark or patent applications is important. A professional attorney will help file the applications properly.” 

Ploynapa Julagasigorn, a senior associate at Tilleke & Gibbins in Bangkok, said that English is frequently used as a common language for conducting international trade. When parties all speak different languages, it is necessary to have a common means of communication to prevent misunderstandings and potential disputes. The reason English has become used as a common language is related to the history of world trade and international relations. While other languages are also used in international trade – especially regionally – English remains predominant. 

She added: “Patent and trademark applications filed locally with Thailand’s Department of Intellectual Property must be in Thai. However, applications filed with the World Intellectual Property Organization can be filed in English. If the applications are forwarded to Thailand, the Department of Intellectual Property will translate the information into Thai.” 

She continued: “There have been many trademark applications filed with the World Intellectual Property Organization under the Madrid Protocol. In such cases, the information is translated into Thai after the application is forwarded to the Department of Intellectual Property.” 

Best translations and service providers 

So if language is a barrier, how can communication happen? The answer might be the free “machine translations” available online. But according to Joyce A. Tan, managing director at Joyce A. Tan & Partners in Singapore, good quality human translators currently remain superior to artificial intelligence despite the progress made with AI. Furthermore, a qualified person will still need to provide and sign off on an accompanying certification of a translation if it is so required. 

She added that ideally, working with an effectively bilingual patent or trademark attorney who is proficient in both languages of relevance and competent in the technical field at play would provide better assurance of addressing the two aspects of a good translation, such as linguistic accuracy and appropriate transposition of technical or substantive nuances.  

“However, this is rarely the case, so acceptable translations are used, as provided by qualified translators who generally tend to focus on linguistic accuracy,” she said. “In such a situation, it is advisable to give to the translator a good brief and plenty of opportunity to clarify details of the intentions in the original document so that no undue assumptions are made about the words used in such document. In choosing a translator to produce the English translation, it is also useful to consider whether he or she has had experience in handling similar subject matter before and if his or her native language is the language of the original document.” 

Melvyn Loey, Tan’s colleague and a director of trademarks at Joyce A. Tan & Partners, said: “In the case of an international patent or trademark portfolio, where Singapore is not the only country requiring an English translation of a non-English application or document, it would make practical sense to adopt the same English translation used in the other countries for reasons of consistency, cost and time.” 

For pointers and tips on getting the best translations possible (particularly in patent and trademark applications), Andre Chissel, a senior patent principal at Joyce A. Tan & Partners, added: “Look for service providers that specialize in the translation of patents or similar subject matter requiring translation and have the appropriate background such as an engineering background. Tried and tested service providers, validated by earlier users with similar needs are preferred, so trusted recommendations are useful. One’s own prior experience with service providers is also a good source of reference for this reason.” 

Julagasigorn shared: “It is best to hire a legal service company that has in-house translators. This not only provides the benefits mentioned above, but also keeps the entire application preparation work in-house, minimizing the risk of data leakage or miscommunication with external parties.” 





 - Excel V. Dyquiangco

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