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Lost in Translation: How Language Impacts Diplomacy

 9 min read / 

It was with the signing of the ‘Joint Communiqué on the Establishment of Diplomatic Relations’ on January 1, 1979 that the United States officially transferred diplomatic recognition from Taipei to Beijing, thereby signalling the normalisation of China-US relations.

The past 40 years have since been characterised by peaks and troughs, with some marked progress towards improved ties having been made. Nevertheless, resting shallowly beneath flattering gestures between heads of state and vocal procurements of friendship, an undercurrent of mutual distrust persists.

The balance of power in global politics is changingand in this new era, China and the US envision very different world orders that they would like to see arise. The only problem is that both sides are not very good at articulating what it is they wish to see manifest to each other—with fundamental cultural and linguistic differences underlining this dilemma.

Although language has been regarded as an impediment to fruitful China-US relations, not enough focus is being dedicated towards a comprehensive understanding of the issue. A hundred years ago Benjamin Worhf and Edward Sapir advanced the Linguistic Relativity Hypothesis, arguing that languages are not solely the manifestation of different groups attempts at communicating, but can in fact change the brain and the way we interpret the world.

The latest research emerging from the growing field of psycholinguistics has begun to put substance behind this concept, ratifying the idea that language impacts our brain in a myriad of non-obvious but significant ways. It has been observed that people pay attention to different things depending on their linguistic background and will place more importance on certain facts versus others. These findings have a cascading effect on decision making processes, judgements and our interactions with others, particularly when the person sitting across the negotiating table speaks a different language.

Such dynamics are readily found within the discourse surrounding China-US relations. Take the US National Security Strategy document released in December 2017. In the NSS the term ‘rival’ was used to refer to China numerous times. Where it was critical of China’s recent actions regarding the exploitation of free markets, military build-ups in the South China Sea, and its growing nuclear arsenal, the document was also careful not to frame China as an outright enemy.

But the difference between rival versus enemy is arguably not as self-evident in Chinese as it is in English. In English, the word ‘rival’ is equated with the terms ‘adversary’ and ‘challenger’, alongside the notion of an ‘equal’ or a ‘counterpart’. However, in Chinese the translated version of rival — Duìshǒu (对手 does not carry the same degree of likeness and similarity. The word Duìshǒu is more closely associated with the notion of an opponent in a conflict than is the case with rival in English. To be ones Duìshǒu is to literally stand against another, to be their opponent, and this is a dynamic that can easily be equated with enmity.

To be fair, in key policy documents such as the NSS and others, the US and its allies don’t rely solely on the term rival when referring to China. ‘Challenger’, ‘adversary’ and ‘contender’ have all been used at varying times to describe China’s current position within global politics.

While in English this may be intended to demarcate the distinction between ‘China the enemy’ and ‘China the rival’, in Chinese all these terms are found to be translated as Duìshǒu, which arguably only serves to reaffirm the portrayal of China as an opponent in the minds of Chinese.

Another example is a particular title that has gained increased traction in recent years. It is the labelling of China as a ‘strategic competitor’. Strategic competitor can be translated into Chinese as Zhànlüè jìngzhēng zhě (战略竞争者). Again, significant discrepancies between the connotations associated with the word in English and its translated counterpart in Chinese are demonstrable.

In English the word ‘strategy’ is not intrinsically tied to the concept of war and conflict. Instead, in the present day English context, strategy denotes “a plan of action designed to achieve a long-term or overall aim”. In Chinese, however, the separation between strategy and conflict is not as strong. Indeed, the first character that comprises the Chinese word for strategy, Zhàn (), can be directly translated into ‘war’ or ‘conflict’. The second character lüè (can be translated as ‘plan’. When broken down into its singular character components the Chinese word for ‘strategy’ therefore becomes something akin to; ‘war plan’ or ‘war strategy’.

Similar problems are inherent in the translation of ‘competitor’ 竞争者 (jìngzhēng zhě). In Chinese, jìng (means ‘to contend’ or ‘to compete’, and zhēng (to dispute’, or, ‘to struggle’. To break jìngzhēng down into its singular character components, the
idea becomes; ‘to contend within a struggle/dispute’. To refer to China as a ‘strategic competitor’ is therefore largely problematic. When translated, the term frames China as more of an enemy than as an equal or counterpart, regardless of what the original intention when expressed in English may be.

This same issue also plagues the way that other English speaking countries are perceived by China. While it made pains not to label the country explicitly, the Australian Government’s 2017 White Paper frequently made reference to the ‘strategic rivalry’ taking place between the US and China in the Indo-Pacific which incurs the same problem discussed above.

Yet another example is found in the description of China as a ‘revisionist power’, a title recently favoured by US President Donald Trump. In English a revisionist is “an individual or group who revises, or favors the revision of some accepted system, theory or doctrine.”

One could point to China’s uncompromising actions in the South China sea, such as its refusal to acknowledge a UN High Court ruling in 2016, its ambitious Belt and Road infrastructure and development initiative, and the country’s hotly contested ‘Made in China 2025’ industrial development plan to convincingly argue this case. In this context the term ‘revisionist power’ contains largely negative connotations as it posits China as a country that stands against the status quo and an international system that the West believes has, and continues, to benefit all sovereign states.

However, the translated version of ‘revisionist power’, in Chinese Xiūzhèng zhǔyì zhě (修正主义者) arguably denotes positivity at face-value. The character Xiū (修) means ‘to repair’ or ‘to mend’ while zhèng (正) can be translated as ‘positive’, ‘correct’ or ‘true’. Taken together, Xiūzhèng therefore relates to the idea of ‘correction’.

Within the history of communism, to which China’s development is still fundamentally linked, the term ‘revisionist’ is also closely connected to the idea of betrayal. Labelling China a ‘revisionist power’ may therefore be somewhat confusing when relayed to a Chinese speaking audience. On the one hand the translated word entails positive change or correction, on the other, given China’s communist past, it frames China as an antagonist.

Articles circling within China with titles such as; Zhōngguó dàodǐ bèipànle shéi?” (中国到底背叛了谁?) or “Who Has China Actually Betrayed?”, and “Zhēnzhèng de “guójì zhìxù xiūzhèng zhǔyì guójiā”, bùzài tàipíngyáng xī’àn(真正的国际秩序修正主义国家”, 不在太平洋西岸), “The real ‘revisionist country in the international order’ is not on the west coast of the Pacific” highlight some of the confusion visible within China’s online community over the terms recent usage.

These subtle nuances in language amount to massive differences in perception, ultimately leading to misunderstanding between parties. In this way, the linguistic differences between Chinese and English remain a fundamental contributor to the mutual trust deficit that undergirds China’s relationship with the US and other major English-speaking powers.

Moving forward, diplomats and ordinary people alike must recognise that good intent is sometimes not enough to foster hospitable relations between people of different linguistic and cultural backgrounds. Science is beginning to put weight behind the concept of linguistic determinism and this calls for a re-examination of how language affects the conduct of foreign affairs.

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