Mistranslations: A Man Hears What He Wants to Hear and Disregards the Rest

Credit: David Cowhig

Translation, mistranslation, selective quotes, and omissions are among the many problems we share on both sides of the Pacific. I mostly agree with Zichen Wang and Yang Liu’s recent piece about the translation of Party Secretary Xi’s speech (perhaps they don’t really want to invoke “fair and balanced” in the context of translation since that brings to mind the opinionators on Murdoch’s Fox News!)

I would make the translation of the sentence including “头破血流” (Tóu pò xiě liú) a bit more exciting though—maybe something along the lines of how ‘anyone who dared invade China would dash themselves against a solid wall made from the flesh and blood of the Chinese nation.’ Why? General Secretary Xi was making a clear reference to the words of heroic resistance by the Chinese people against invaders, something that the “Song of the Volunteers,” now the Chinese national anthem, reminds them: “Arise you people not willing to be slaves, may our flesh and blood form a new Great Wall, the nation faces its greatest peril.”  A big cheer went up with those words, so people did catch the reference! Speeches and songs about national defense can be bloody – in the La Marseillaise we hear “may the stinking blood of the invaders fill the furrows of our fields”.  The U.S. National anthem too is a war song about the defense of Baltimore against red-coated invaders.

General Secretary Xi was indeed talking about defending China from invaders and against people who persist (like those pesky Australians say) in saying mean things about China.  The Party sees that as a threat to China’s ideological security, which is an important part of China’s conception of national security. China now sees a great need to “tell China’s story” and to build a winning narrative of Chinese discourse power. I’ve heard that somewhere before! It reminds me of similar arguments for liberating the US diplomatic public affairs function – former USIA (called USIS overseas so as not to rhyme with CIA) from the clutches of the US State Department to better “tell America’s story”. 

When I do translations (one of my hobbies is my translation blog where I collect revealing and perhaps soon-to-vanish gems by Chinese writers), I am always thinking about sentences and paragraphs as units of meaning. If you focus too closely on particular words and phrases you might ignore the context. Journalists hungry for reader eyeballs, government propagandists eager to promote the view that we-are-great-but-they-stink, people who honestly want to believe what matches their previous information and judgements, and others who find confirming people’s prejudices as a great way to build their own credibility can all be eager audiences for (an promoters of) mistranslations.

As Chinese diplomatic historian Shen Zhihua has said, China doesn’t understand its neighbors and doesn’t even understand North Korea.  The problem of ignorance has become so bad, said Shen, that “When our diplomats speak untruths, they should be at least aware that they are speaking untruths.” Chinese historians who point out problems can be pilloried, as Shen has been, as historical nihilists, accused of belittling China’s achievements and its leaders. Ignorance can be dangerous to both our countries. 

Changing lenses helps understand why mistranslation occurs and more importantly why they are so readily accepted.  I like to think about the patriotism of the Chinese and the nationalism of we Americans – not that it is one way or another, but it is important to understand that Chinese people can be at the same time proud of their country and very frustrated about it as many Americans, on both the left and the right, are about the USA. This can lead to easily accepting misinformation that matches our particular point of view, and rejecting accurate information that conflicts with our point of view.

Exposing ourselves to other points can produce a healthy questioning of home verities.  As for myself, I got very interested in US history in junior high in self-defense when I realized there was considerable propaganda in my history textbooks. Reading widely and even listening to Radio Moscow and Radio Peking (back when they were criticizing Confucius and Deng Xiaoping too) on my shortwave radio might have helped – not that I believed what I heard, but it made me wonder why not everybody likes the US – from what I read in my junior high history textbooks, everybody should love us!

These days, with many Chinese and American foreign correspondents going home, we rely now even more on words deprived of the context that good on-the-spot slices of life reporting can give.  What do we have left? Fragments of information easy to take out of context.  The worst assumptions become more credible when it seems that the Chinese authorities appear to want to cover up anything, either to protect China’s image or simply out of reflex, or fearing their local or national leaders might feel embarrassed. In addition, this is accompanied by the loss of long-term China knowledge since the US side stopped (merely suspended I hope) the Fulbright exchange program and the Peace Corps [oops, in China they can’t be called that — they were the U.S-China Friendship Volunteers]  in China.  Hundreds of thousands of Chinese have studied in the US; the numbers of Americans who have studied in China is far smaller. The US needs to train up a new generation of Americans who deeply understand China through their own experience and regular contact with their Chinese friends.  Machine translation, although it is now advancing at a remarkable clip, is no substitute for the friendships, cultural understanding and human networks that human relations bring.

China too is suffering a loss.  We can only hope that more students on both sides will get visas more easily — many Chinese students find it much harder to go to the US and most foreign students are locked out of China. The trans-pacific collaborations that have made “U.S. – China”  number one in each other’s international scientific collaborations may decay.  Gone home are many Chinese journalists who contributed to the neibu internal confidential reporting stream, one of the four or five keep information streams China’s leaders get.  A vital information stream that is (was?!) much less controlled than China’s mass media, and can give Chinese mid- and upper-level officials useful insights into US politics and society. 

The growing ignorance and even fear of each other in both the U.S. and China reminds me of what Yoda in the Joseph Campbell-inspired Star Wars movies said about the path to the dark side of the forceBeware. Mistranslations, both deliberate and unintentional, easily become rocks to throw at the other side. Mistranslations can become bodyguards of ignorance when they confirm our prejudices about one another. Unfortunately many have found that confirming popular prejudice is a good way to build their own credibility.

My greatest adventure was working ten years in Mainland China at the US Embassy in Beijing and later at the now-closed Consulate General in Chengdu.  Many Chinese people from the man-in-the-street to middle-ranking Chinese officials were very generous in explaining to me how their country works – very decentralized, lots of contradictions and corruption, infighting and many dedicated people, including many Communist Party members determined to make the lives of Chinese people better.  I met many brave writers and activists in China who faced retaliation against them, their relatives and coworkers for writing and saying things that contradicted the Communist Party’s position and, even worse, threatened to recruit more people into wrong-think.  I couldn’t imagine standing up to that kind of pressure myself!

Yet I met many people who did – HIV/AIDS activists Dr. Wang Shuping and Dr. Gao Yaojie (they both had to leave), writer Liao Yiwu (exile), Pastor Wang Yi of Chengdu’s Autumn Rain congregation (jail), and writer Ran Yunfei (jailed for months, forced to give up his brilliant blog and social media accounts and keep a low profile) and human rights educator and activist Huang Qi (jailed).  It has been a privilege to know these Chinese patriots. As PLA General Liu Yazhou wrote several years ago, “Great Critics are Often Great Patriots”. 

China is both a fascinating, wonderful cultural zone with millennia of history and a young, dynamic, and rapidly prospering state — the People’s Republic of China — rebuilding in the wake of horrendous wars and famines. The PRC is a young state (often confused both inside and outside China with multi-millennia-old cultural zone China)  that has a ruling party with a thin skin determined to build its discourse power both at home and abroad.  Yet, as Beaumarchais wrote, “without the freedom to criticize, praise is meaningless”.  Today, PRC internet authorities have even been telling Chinese that it is their duty to report people spreading ‘wrong’ ideas online.  Chinese journalist He Qinglian describes the Chinese Communist Party’s surprisingly effective information control and guidance system in The Fog of Censorship, a remarkable free PDF book from Human Rights in China

The public opinion running against China these days makes it very easy and even popular to say and believe bad things about China that aren’t true.  There is enough bad news out there but we still should question what we hear. There are plenty of people out there with agendas  to promote the negative and others to promote the positive.  People who try to keep an open mind and try to see what is true on each side do tend (figuratively at least) to get killed in the crossfire.

During my ten years in China during the second half of the 90s and the second half of the ‘nulls’, I saw people’s lives getting better.  I saw with my own eyes former Party General Secretary Hu Jintao’s stress on urban development making a big improvement in the lives of people in rural Sichuan. Chinese young people now have more access to education than ever before.  With that success of course comes problems of a middle class society— the unemployed educated, disillusionment, and social turbulence— something that has long worried the Chinese Communist Party. General Secretary Xi’s ever-tighter clampdowns on Chinese society, which are apparently spilling over to China’s foreign policy as well, are in no way a sign of confidence.

I started talking here about mistranslation.  The instant credibility people give to mistranslations and the way they get picked up so easily by the mass media reveals mistranslation to be a symptom of the much bigger problem of fear, misinformation, and of our willingness to see everything through the darkest lens possible. Things have gotten to the point that some articles now argue the US should be careful not to over-demonize China.  Certainly not, but is just-right demonization of China now acceptable?  Some Chinese writers have discussed the US demonization of China for decades.  Can we become more discriminating in our information diets?  As Simon and Garfunkel sang, “a man believes what he wants to believe and disregards the rest”.  We all need to do better.

Listen to President Kennedy at his June 1963 commencement speech at American University.  There are lessons for us today from another tense time of mutual demonization. President Kennedy said:

So, let us not be blind to our differences–but let us also direct attention to our common interests and to the means by which those differences can be resolved. And if we cannot end our differences now, at least we can help make the world safe for diversity. For, in the final analysis, our most basic common link is that we all inhabit this small planet. We all breathe the same air. We all cherish our children’s future. And we are all mortal.

Author

  • David Cowhig worked 25 years as a US State Department Foreign Service Officer including ten years at US Embassy Beijing and US Consulate General Chengdu and four years as a China Analyst in the Bureau of Intelligence and Research. After his retirement, he and his wife Jessie translated Liao Yiwu’s (2019) “Bullets and Opium," and he continues to maintain his translation blog at https://gaodawei.wordpress.com/.