Lost in translation: Wellington City Council drops demands for quality control documents

8:42 am on 21 August 2019

The builders of a high-rise block of apartments in central Wellington resisted getting translations done of important Chinese quality control documents.

Dixon Street apartments Wellington

The 20-storey building is nearly complete. Photo: RNZ / Phil Pennington

Emails newly released to RNZ by the Wellington City Council show it dropped its demand for the translation after the steel supplier complained about the cost, and the project director suggested simply blanking out all the Chinese text.

However, since then, the council has once again changed its mind.

It said just yesterday that the translation was still a live issue, even though it was "satisfied with the design and construction of the building".

The 20-storey 114-apartment block at 111 Dixon Street is almost finished structurally, though it is still waiting for code compliance sign-off from the council, which it said it would not give until it sees the certification that backs up the independent testing of the structural steel imported from China.

The council has been faced with wading through a mass of quality assurance, or QA, documents.

"It is fair to say that there is a mountain of information," the project director Robb Noble, of 111 Dixon Contracts, told the council by email in February this year.

111 Dixon Contracts was set up by the developers 111 Dixon Ltd to complete the apartment block after the main contractor Arrow collapsed early this year; Arrow has since been liquidated owing $39m.

The emails show Mr Noble and the council agreed that instead of the council checking all the documents, they would ask the project's engineer Stephen Mitchell for a "comprehensive statement" that he had checked them and was satisfied (in addition to the usual Producer Statement, or PS4, from him attesting the building had been constructed as designed).

But the council wanted something else as well.

"In relation to the information in the QA not written in English, can you have this translated by an independent translator and verified by an affidavit?" the council's team leader of operations Matthew Hodgkinson emailed Mr Noble in mid-April.

On 17 April, Robb Noble replied: "The translation you suggest can be done but given the volume of documentation this would be quite a task and no doubt expensive. As a suggestion, what if we simply had the Chinese redacted from the documents? I could do a trial sample and let you have a look at it first before we did the whole document."

But blanking out the Chinese text was not a goer.

"I have spoken with my management team and we would like the documents translated into English as this information is critical to us forming reasonable grounds for compliance," Mr Hodgkinson emailed.

"Removing the information in Chinese would be altering their original documents. By having the documents translated by an independent translator and verified by an affidavit ensures that there is a complete and full translation of the document.

"I appreciate this is a big task but we have to be able to interpret the information we receive."

The developer alerted the steel's supplier, a small Palmerston North company Pinnacle Rigging led by Cameron Easton.

In late May, Mr Easton emailed the council: "The translation of QA document for the Dixon is proving to be a lengthy and costly exercise with costs estimated to exceed $20k; costs which we had not allowed for.

"Is there a more cost-effective approach that meets your requirements?

"As a suggestion, Pinnacle Rigging could provide a signed covering letter that would state that 'Pinnacle Rigging agrees that WCC accepts no responsibility for any items written in Chinese text' or words to that effect. Your earliest reply would be much appreciated."

Three hours later Matthew Hodgkinson came back: "I have spoken to the lawyers at council and we agree that a statement from you covering the sourcing of the steel ... will be sufficient as this is supplied with the PS4... Also, to answer your question about the translation - this is no longer required."

Mr Noble told RNZ he was not aware the emails had been released until we spoke to him on Monday.

All the QA documents were in Chinese and English to start with, and it seemed that when the council understood this, it realised its demand was "silly", he said.

However, he had no view on why the emails don't mention this at all.

Mike Cole of the developer 111 Dixon Ltd in early July told RNZ there has been a "rigorous sign-off procedure culminating in an agreed sign off process".

As for the translation, "we have made it clear to Robb [Noble] that cost wasn't an issue - if we needed to get the documents translated we would have," Mr Cole said by email on Monday.

The council told RNZ that it had received all the necessary information about the steel required "at this time".

This included the PS4 and Pinnacle Rigging's covering statement about the steel, which had been "confirmed by the assessment of an qualified independent engineer".

However, the developers had yet to provide certification about the independent testing regime, the council said.

When the council asked for this certification in July, it referenced an email from Arrow telling RNZ in December last year that it was using such a regime.

The council did not respond when asked why it did not ascertain the testing regime was good enough before the apartment tower was built, rather than wait till it was already up; or how it had approved a QA process when it was based at least in part on information written in untranslated Chinese.