Last updateWed, 18 Oct 2017 10am

Lost in translation: A Piece of My Mind

A Chinese friend sent me the text of re-elected President Barack Obama’s victory speech as published by the leading government-approved Chinese news agency, Xin Hua. As an exercise, I decided to try translating it back into English, referring as little as possible to the published English text. I was doing fine – political victory speeches run on pretty predictable lines – until I got to about the third paragraph, where Obama was thanking “all who participated in this election.”

My translation of the subsequent phrase came out “whether you went by yourself to the polls to vote, or voted by phone.”

“That can’t be right,” I thought. “Nowhere in this country can you vote by phone, I’m pretty sure.”

I double-checked my dictionary. I wasn’t quite sure whether tou piao dian should be translated “voting time” or “voting place,” but da dian hua tou de piao was clear: “make a phone cast ballot.”

I cheated and brought up the text of Obama’s speech from the Internet. What he had actually said: “Whether you pounded the pavement or picked up the phone ... .” He was talking about the volunteers who had worked on behalf of both candidates.

In the next sentence, the president continued to thank volunteers on both sides: “whether you carried an Obama sign or a Romney sign.” What had Xin Hua done with that?

Xin Hua translation: “whether you voted for me or for Romney.” The Chinese news agency had completely failed to translate the idea of volunteers working in a political campaign. This is the leading communication channel for Chinese people – they must have good translators. Why had they gone wrong?

It was not hard to figure out. Coincidentally, at almost the same time as our presidential elections, there was also a scheduled change in leadership in China. The process works a little differently there.

You may have read about how the new leader was chosen by consensus of the outgoing leadership, and then the six additional members of the Standing Committee were selected, again by consensus, to run the country for the next 10 years. The principal drama was whether this committee would be cut from nine members to seven (it was) and whether a woman would be named for the first time (nope).

After the selection by consensus, the seven new leaders were presented to the 18th Congress for election by acclamation.

No campaigning door to door. No phone banks of callers with lists of likely voters. No rallies. No parades. No town meetings. No televised debates. No seesawing opinion polls.

So, how would you translate “pounding the pavement” for a candidate? How would you put “carrying a sign for me” into the right context? To do this properly, the translator would have had to provide footnotes about the American campaigning process that would have been as long as the speech itself.

And probably not politically correct and perhaps hazardous to one’s health.

Maybe the Chinese didn’t have the right words. Maybe it was just easier and safer not to look for them. And the gulf between the two cultures gets just a little bit deeper.

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