Sat, Jun 01, 2013 - Page 8 News List

Promoting untranslatable words

By Thorsten Pattberg

Most people believe that the secret to promoting Chinese culture is to have as many foreigners as possible studying the Chinese language, but there is a better way.

The difference between promoting and inhibiting one’s culture often lies in “translation.”

All writers should be aware of the unwritten law of “cultural property rights” — when to translate, what translation does and where to avoid it.

The English language is often hailed as the international language, but it is not the global language. In fact, the global language would have to adopt tens of thousands of non-European concepts from China, India and Japan. The list goes on.

Chinese academics are making great efforts to promote East Asian terms into the global lexicon, Chinese words like tianxia, shengren and junzi, and even the mythical long.

The reason is simple: Scientists may have indexed the animal and plant kingdoms, and the material world, but the taxonomization of culture has only just begun.

Capitalism has taught us that nations should compete for market share, natural resources and human capital. What is often omitted in these theories is that nations should also compete for their terminologies. The main task for Chinese artists, writers, journalists and academics is (no matter how international they are), as I see it, to choose the correct Chinese names and terms each and every time over misleading English translations.


Because, just like in real life, if we give our names, ideas and inventions away to another group, that group might quickly put another name to it and thereby automatically obtain what the Germans call deutungshoheit — the sovereignty over the definition of thought.

It is quite surprising to me that few have noticed this before: People fight over brand names, patents, publications and intellectual property rights; yet when it comes to a token of their own cultural inventiveness, Asians tend to think first about what Americans would call this.

Translation is the oldest profession. It is reducing the world to what we already know. However, in this digital age we now have the computational capacity to expand our knowledge systems. We can now begin to find the untranslatables in each culture and return them to world history.

Japan is already ahead of China. Most readers in the West have heard about Japanese concepts such as sushi, sumo, zen, tsunami, manga and anime. These terms are part of the Japanese sociocultural originality; they could not be translated into European languages without losing their intended meanings and therefore have been adopted.

Chinese, too, should be encouraged to go out and find the untranslatable words of Chinese origin and, if they can, forbid themselves the way of all-too-convenient Western translations.

As a golden rule, each and every culture holds valuable information for all the others. However, most foreign terms that were adopted in the West come from the realms of entertainment or aesthetics, like kung fu or fengshui. However, in the fields of politics, economics, the humanities and social sciences, the “global language” is kept virtually Chinese-free. It need not to be.

China and Japan are not alone. India, the other ancient civilization, also wants a stake hold in the global language. Think about Hindu concepts such as avatar, guru, pundit, karma and yoga that have already found their way into the global lexicon.

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