OPINION: So Long, Lung Slice: China Changes Its Translation Tactics

OPINION: So Long, Lung Slice: China Changes Its Translation Tactics
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What you need to know

China wants some 3,500 words translated differently, but do these changes really matter in everyday life?

China rolled out its “New English Guidelines for the Public Service Sector” on Dec. 1, 2017, a long-anticipated document which has the potential to upend translations around the country as well as perceptions around the world.

The guidelines, which are divided into 13 sectors including transportation, culture, tourism and education, contain over 3,500 suggested English translations, including some that have generated quite a bit of controversy.

For example, the official English translation tofu will change to doufu and ramen will be replaced by lamian.

In June of 2017, it was made public that China would be putting new guidelines into effect that utilize the Hanyu Pinyin system to romanize Chinese words on signs, menus, brochures and anything else in the public sector.

I study lexicography and have researched the cultural appropriation of English translations for many years, having released a handful of papers and articles on the topic, and have always advocated creating English translations unique to each society’s own culture and language. I feel this, as opposed to adopting translations stemming from other cultures, helps form a more confident national identity.

I believe that only by translating these Mandarin words into their direct pronunciations, and not translating them into their English approximations to accommodate non-Mandarin speakers, will the true, original flavor of these words be shown to the world.

This is not some blindly nationalist gesture – on the contrary, it has been decided only after objective research and observation on the way language works.

Translating Mandarin on its Own Terms

Let’s take the most recent holiday as an example. Chunjie is a unmistakably Chinese holiday, and its most common English translation is Chinese New Year. This translation adheres to a naturalization strategy of translation, accommodating the outside looking in.

The Engilsh-speaking world already has “New Year” – it’s not a foreign concept. By slapping a “Chinese” on the beginning, the translation makes takes away any and all of the cultural uniqueness of chunjie, rendering instead simply the Chinese version of New Year.

Depending on the translation, we also have the partial translation of “Spring Festival.” Chun is spring, jie is festival, put them together and you get Spring Festival. Although the concept is entirely new for English speakers – they have Spring, they have Festivals, but what’s a Spring Festival? – the words themselves are still English concepts, meaning the translation still adheres partially to an English-language way of thinking, and is not a complete foreignization of the Mandarin.

The only way to create a pure foreignization of the Mandarin Chunjie is to, ironically, not translate the word at all, but simply romanize its pronunciation by writing it in Pinyin. This is the only way a non-Mandarin speaker will understand any Mandarin concept on its own terms. For a non-Mandarin speaker, Chunjie is an entirely foreign concept. It loses even the familiarity of the English spring and festival.

But how can anyone ever know what Chunjie actually means, if it is written directly as its pronounced? Is not writing out the characters’ pronunciation simply redundant? One only needs to consult the Collins English Dictionary to understand – under the main entry for Chunjie they give a concise definition, giving readers an opportunity to conceptualize Chunjie on its own terms, without becoming muddled in the preconceptions brought on by approximations like Chinese New Year or Spring Festival.

Why Lamian isn’t Ramen

Let’s look at the Oxford English Dictionary. In recent years there has been a massive influx of Chinese terms, and with the exception of some partial naturalizations such as milk tea for naicha, most of them are complete foreignizations: wuxia, siumei, tuina, qipao, jiaozi, etc.

With that said, there are other loan words that have already made their way into the English vernacular, such as tofu for doufu and Ramen for lamian. Doesn’t the English for weiqi, for example, come from the Japanese “Go”? If English speakers already have words for these things that have effectively become English words, why confuse them by directly translating them into their Pinyin pronunciations? Why write doufu instead of Tofu?

Apart from the fact that these words were initially from Chinese, English is an incredibly adaptive language. English speakers are very flexible and accepting of new, foreign-born words. English speakers have still found a way to incorporate thousands of foreign words into everyday use.

Direct Pronunciation is the International Preference

Translating pronunciation directly, as seen in China's New English Guidelines and the Oxford English Dictionary, is actually an incredibly common practice worldwide and can be seen as the international preference. Writing things out with the roman equivalent of their pronunciation is not only intuitive, but preserves the original flavor and concept of the word, without any preconceived notions that English approximations would bring.

Despite overwhelming evidence that this is the norm, and it works, many Chinese are still speaking out against this change. Many believe that it’s redundant, that although a foreigner will be able to pronounce a word on a sign or a menu, they now wont have any understanding of what it means. This is a conception that must change.

This change reflects, and will continue, a new Chinese cultural confidence. Hear me: confidence, not arrogance. For a long time Chinese have felt inferior to the west, and that inferiority is reflected in our English translations. With a China growing as a world power, Chinese confidence in their own culture grown as well, and that should show through a change in the way we translate English. This should not be seen as arrogance or xenophobia, but as a return to normalcy, the way things should have been all along. For these aims, the New English Guidelines are a step in the right direction.

Read next: How Movie Titles Get Lost in Translation

The original Chinese-language version of this article can be found here.

Translator: Dan Strakosch

Editor: Morley J Weston