“Zero Translation” Causes a Row in China

Slowly but surely, bits of English are creeping into Chinese, Roman alphabet and all. English words and acronyms like Wifi, GDP and NBA now appear untranslated in all sorts of contexts, from spoken conversations to emails to news stories.

But not everyone is pleased with this trend, which is known as “zero translation.” The People’s Daily, the official newspaper of the Chinese Communist Party, recently weighed in with an editorial attacking the use of untranslated English words.

According to the BBC, the editorial, which bore the headline “Why is zero translation so prevalent?,” claimed that

“[S]uch practices damage the integrity and harmony of the Chinese language, dilute the richness of the Chinese culture and hamper comprehension. “How many people can understand these words?” they ask.”

According to the New York Times, the editorial went on to say that “It’s become so serious that the foreign words are even showing up in regular publications and formal documents, giving rise to resentment among the public.”

But is the public really resentful of these English loanwords?  Surely some are. But not everyone, or the government would have an easier time promoting its list of “official translations.” As it stands now, some translations for commonly used English terms take off quickly. Other zero translation words, like NBA, are much more firmly entrenched. The government has been trying to get people to stop saying “NBA” in reference to American basketball for the past four years, with no success.

That’s not to say that the English words being used in China now will be used forever.  Sometimes, “zero translation” is just a temporary stage. For example, according to the New York Times, “email” was once used in China, but now two separate Chinese words have evolved to take its place:” 电邮 (dianyou), literally “electronic mail,” and 邮件 (youjian), which simply means ‘mail.'”

The People’s Daily editorial has generated a lot of attention and commentary online. Many people feel that trying to preserve the “purity” of Mandarin Chinese is a lost cause. For example, “My brothers name is Ruprecht” commented on the BBC website:

“Having worked in and visited China for 24 years, I can honestly say the people really don’t care how Western culture affects their language or anything else. They are very comfortable with it. Maybe in 20 years time the Chinese Govt will catch up with their own people.”

Meanwhile, DGR in Ithaca told the New York Times that while some of the editorial’s concerns were valid, others were misplaced:

“I fully share the concern about loanwords that are transliterated into a meaningless string of Chinese characters, for example the popular 巴士 ‘bashi’ for “bus”, with a literal meaning of handle/knight — i.e. gibberish. The evolution of the e-mail from this to a native combination is correct. Using a foreign-derived word or name in Latin script at least preserves the meaning of Chinese characters. I have no problem with “NBA”.”

It’s probably impossible to stem the tide of English loanwords into Chinese, but that doesn’t make translation any less important for companies looking to expand into the Chinese market. The cachet of “zero translation” may fade over time.   A well-translated brand will endure.

1 reply
  1. Mya
    Mya says:

    It is unfortunate that those Chinese intellectuals talks about ‘purity’ and ‘vitality’ of culture and language. That is so 20th-Century. Imagine they would also do the talking about race and ethnicity.

    Reply

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