View from Australia: Bewildering Beijing
“Untranslatable Word,” headlined the Wall Street Journal in December 2005, “Leaves Beijing Baffled”.
More on that later. For now, let's look at an interesting discussion about Mandarin Chinese, one of the most challenging modern languages in the world today. With China's dominance of the Olympic medal count, James Fallows brought up the issue of whether the announcer and commentators are even pronouncing "Beijing" correctly in English. The question Fallows essentially posed to his readership is: how do we go about saying the word for the political and economic capital of the ancient and modern Chinese empire?
Fallows talked about our fascination with pronouncing certain English words as if they were French: think Beijing (Bay-zhee-ing not Bay-jing) or garage (gar-ah-zh not gar-age). My two cents: first, I contend that our pronunciation of foreign words with Frenchified sounds is akin to our parochial misperception that the only romantic sounding language is a so-called romance language. Find me the right person with the right enunciation and any language can sound unbearably romantic. Second: there are an endless list of hypotheses (see the comments by Fallows's readers) as to why we succumb to the francophone pronunciation of certain English words. "My explanation of the phenomenon is to blame pinyin and its often ham-handed polysyllabic representation of a monsyllabic language," said one Chinese-American reader. "I'm fairly certain no one would mispronounce Beijing if it was rendered as Bei Jing," .
Linguistically, the likely reason is that it is easier for English speakers to relax the palate with zh- sounds versus harsher ji- or ag- sounds. Fallows quotes one reader who hits this linguistic hypothesis as if it were a button on a game show. "I think we are unconsciously adding -ing to a common word, beige. Lazy, perhaps," the reader caveats, "but it's easier to elide the zh- sound than to crisply separate the syllables and to pronounce them in a less familiar way." Indeed. We always take the path of least resistance. As a Mandarin speaker since my early teens, I still resort to the Frenchified ease of pronouncing Beijing with the zh over the ji sound when I speak in English. Obviously, I don't dare do that when I speak Chinese. Nonetheless, there is, from a relativistic point of view, reason for abiding by the contemporary culture norm of pronunciation. "When in Rome," as they say — or "when in the village," goes the Chinese version of that proverb, "do as the villagers do." In other words, if everyone tends to pronounce it in a lazy zh- francophone way, then that is how we say it in English. How else do the editors of the Oxford English Dictionary determine pronunciation if not without reference to the current norms and practices of pronunciation. Think yacht. How do you pronounce it? How do you think it should be pronounced. In short, I don't really have much of a problem with the francophone turn to certain English words. As long as we all do it, pronunciation inevitably becomes new English and entirely acceptable.
Why all this talk of the minutia of Chinese linguistics in American Review? Because, as a senior US diplomat said to me when I was a teenager, a strong linguistic understanding of both Chinese and English is essential to US–China relations. Great diplomacy relies on great translation and great translation relies on good words. There is no better way to have the latter enhance the former than to know both languages like the proverbial back of your hands. "Language is but a net," said the ancient Chinese philosopher, ZhuangZi. "Once you capture the idea, you can throw away the net." The more intimate your understanding of your own language, alongside another's language "net", then the further you can cast both nets into the ideational unknown.
Consider what happened in 2005. As the Wall Street Journal later recounted, a speech by a senior US official in the Bush Administration called for China to more fully integrate into the global order as a "responsible stakeholder." US Deputy-Assistant Secretary of State Robert Zoellick coined "responsible stakeholder" in a now infamous speech that fell on deaf ears in China. Not because of the ideas! After all, Chinese intellectuals have been saying the same thing with a different "net" for much longer than Zoellick has been in diplomacy. Rather it fell on deaf ears because "stakeholder" is missing in the Chinese language. It is a great idea, captured by a reasonable net — for it sounds like shareholder but conveys a much deeper message — but this particular idea was lost in translation because China simply didn't have an equivalent word. Beijing was left baffled.
Let's zero-in on this particular case study, for the Chinese certainly did. As the Journal noted, there were whole delegations of Chinese officials, journalists, and diplomats who relentlessly asked what on earth Zoellick meant by what he said. "I ran into people all over the place who kept pulling out tattered copies of the speech," said Jeffrey Bader, a former U.S. official who advised Zoellick before the speech. "I must have spent eight hours in total helping people understand its meaning," he said.
Three official attempts were made at translation. The first was an awkward American translation: fuzeren de liyi canyuzhe — 负责任的利益参与者 — or “responsible participant with beneficial interest”. The second equally obtuse Chinese translation of fuzeren de liyi youguanfang — 负责任的利益攸关方 — or “responsible party with related concern”. Finally, there was a third clumsy attempt of fuzeren de liyi xiangguanzhe — 负责任的利益相关者 — or “responsible counterpart with related interests”. All were entirely bieniu (别 扭). Most ungraceful translations are made up of nine unwieldy characters — five more than any of China's most profound proverbs, one more than standard proverbial sayings — and thus far from the immediate apprehension of an educated Chinese citizenry.
Despite seven sentences that used and implicitly defined Zoellick’s coinage, the Chinese substitute was missing. Stakeholder was lost in translation. This untranslatable word most certainly left Beijing baffled.