Finding what has been lost in translation

Updated: 2013-03-07 08:07

By Pauline D Loh (China Daily)

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Finding what has been lost in translation

The Tower of Babel is a story in the Bible that best illustrates the value of being multilingual. There was a time when all men spoke one language, the book says, but they started quarreling so God decided they were better off not understanding each other.

We have gone full cycle. Now men quarrel because they don't understand each other, and are suspicious because they do not share a common language, culture or skin color.

That's the point. Language goes beyond linguistics. Its nuances are cultivated and built upon history, culture and common use.

So it is that American English is different from the Queen's English, and within the United Kingdom itself, various pockets of subjects speak variations of English almost incomprehensible to the other. Received Pronunciation was heard only on the BBC, but even the BBC is now peppered with different accents.

In China, language is not a problem internally. Thanks to the Emperor Qinshihuang, we all share a common writing that transcends even the thickest country dialects. But when it comes to conversing with the world, China is still stuttering.

Most of China looks out through a haze of translations, some of which have assumed a life of their own.

The names of Hollywood films and their stars take on multi-character names even their mothers may not recognize, but which trip easily off the tongues of film buffs young and old. Enough jokes have been posted online about funny typos or badly translated items on English menus in Chinese restaurants. This only makes food seem more exotic than it actually is and propagates the myths that the Chinese only eat odd animal parts.

Ordering a caf latte at a Starbucks in Beijing, you better know how to say it in Chinese, which sounds roughly like "pulled iron". And look carefully before you order those burgers. A Big Mac is known locally as a Big Bully.

For foreign journalists under tight deadlines, trying to extract information from ministry websites can be bewildering, but no more so than faced with a stack of colored tissue papers printed with tiny Chinese characters when at a bank trying to transfer funds or open an account.

Civil servants, generally efficient in the New Age, IT-savvy China, turn stony-faced when presented with documents not issued in China, and not in Chinese.

A personal encounter convinced me that both my birth and marriage certificates were invalid until proven otherwise.

One was demanded as proof that I was daughter to a father about to be hospitalized, and the other demanded as proof that I am wife to a Chinese husband who was trying to get me registered at the police station as an "alien resident". Both were rejected.

The documents must be translated in the country of issue, happily assuming that the translators back in Singapore did possess a standard of Chinese that could pass muster. Fortunately, they did and I am now officially recognized as wife, and daughter.

This is not meant to be a litany of complaints. Instead, it is meant to highlight the increasing connectivity between China and the rest of the world as more foreigners visit, live and work here, and more Chinese go out, bearing the flag, to study, to learn, to travel.

In the intermingling, friction will occur as contrasting cultures and customs clash. The only thing that will lubricate the contact and smoothen the encounters is the ability to understand each other.

Among our colleagues are Westerners who speak decent Mandarin and who actually enjoy posting comments in Chinese on Weibo, China's most popular micro-blogging site. In 140 words, they share experiences and encounters and show they are committed to making that first step in communicating.

Among our reporters are eager young Chinese who make the effort to report what they see and hear at home, at all levels, to an international audience. They, too, are making the attempt to help the world better understand their country, explain how it works and why it works this way.

Most of all, they help our newsmakers - from top politicians to humble farmers in the field - make that connection with the world.

In return, we hope the world will see beyond the prejudices so often colored by reports from those who analyze from afar, and who depend on secondhand reports from runners on the ground to write commentaries on what is happening in China.

Dr Pauline D Loh is managing editor of Features and China Daily Sunday Edition.

(China Daily 03/07/2013 page6)