China’s Translation Sensation

On March 14, I published a post about Premier Wen Jiabao’s farewell speech to China’s National People’s Congress before he steps down later this year and retires from political office.

China is a land of many spoken languages and one written language. In fact, Chinese movies often have subtitles flowing across the bottom of the screen in Mandarin for the hundreds of millions of Chinese that do not speak Mandarin but only read it. To understand how complex this mix of languages is, Mandarin by itself has more than 50 dialects and there are 56 different minority languages.

I suggest you see Wikipedia’s list of Chinese dialects and languages for a better understanding of how complex China is and how amazing it is that this nation has been a unified country for more than two millennia.

After Wen Jiaboa’s speech, I read the media translations in English from several sources and had no idea that in his speech he quoted original poetry dating back to one of ancient China’s greatest and earliest recognized poets, Ch’u Yu (343 – 289 BC). Since Wen’s speech, the micro-Blog debate and criticism in China have been intense, which demonstrates that in China, expressing an opinion is not forbidden.

How would Americans react if an American President gave his State of the Union address laced with quotes from Latin or Old English?

In Latin, The Lord’s Prayer starts, “PATER noster, qui es in caelis, sanctificetur nomen tuum.” In Old English, it starts with, “Fæder ure þu þe eart on heofonum…”

In China, the response to Wen Jiabao’s use of an ancient and dead Chinese language mostly focused on the translator, Miss Zhang Lu (in Chinese the last name comes first, which emphasized the importance of the family over the individual and demonstrates a major difference between the West and Asia).  Zhang majored in international law and graduated from China’s Institute of Diplomacy. She then became a translator for top ranking Chinese Communist Party officials.

Zhang was praised by many for translating Wen Jiabao’s “I’d not regret dying nine times,” to “For the ideal that I hold dear to my heart, I’d not regret dying a thousand times.”

I printed 14 pages of comments from a Chinese language micro Blog that was part of the national debate, which started with comments by Chinese professors from different universities in China including Fudan University, Tsinghua University and Shanghai’s Foreign Language Institute correcting and offering suggestions for Miss Zhang’s translation.

Sexy Beijing: Lost in Translation

I’m going to focus on one example of one of the ancient Chinese poems Wen Jiabao quoted when he said, “知我罪我,其惟春秋”, which in proper English translates into “History will judge what I have done.”

Miss Zhang’s translation said, “There are people who will appreciate what I have done but there are also people who will criticize me. Ultimately, history will have the final say.”

One professor’s suggested translation said, “What I have done may be appreciated and criticized by the people, yet ultimately history will give me a fair assessment (or judgment).”

In addition, here are several typical comments from the same micro Blog:

Comment A

What’s wrong with Premier Wen acting like he was competing in a poetry contest? He ought to earn credit for doing a good job managing the country, not to impress with his skill of reciting ancient Chinese poetry.

Comment B

It goes to show how difficult it is to be a leader of Chinese today. Wen should not be criticized for incorporating in his speech a couple of lines from ancient poems. Americans didn’t criticize their President W. Bush for saying things that didn’t make sense or made the wrong sense. Instead, they thought him cool and a “man of his-true-self”.

Comment C

For Heaven’s sake Wen represents the face of China. Americans don’t have trouble with Obama’s talent in speaking beautifully. Instead of ridiculing, they appreciated him.

Comment D

Oh, come on, don’t be so naive. Every question at Wen’s last press conference was pre-selected. Premier Wen must have communicated with his translator prior to show-time. He would never risk the young translator’s misunderstanding or misinterpreting his use of ancient poems.


In conclusion, the alleged reason Premier Wen Jiabao used passages from ancient Chinese poems may have been to not only demonstrate the beauty of the Chinese language and his knowledge of it, but to infer that China does not need to bend to the rest of the world and do things as a foreign leader might do but as a Chinese leader.

In fact, it is Chinese tradition for scholars and government officials in China to quote ancient poetry and literature in speeches. In addition, the beauty of language is valued highly in China. The use of spoken and written language to many Chinese is not just getting a meaning or emotion across, it is also considered a form of art.

Meanwhile, in the West/America, we read an English translation of his speech, which is a translation of a translation and walk away thinking we know what one of China’s leaders meant, which brings me to a final question.

What happens when there is a mistake in translation during sensitive political negotiations between countries such as China and America?


Lloyd Lofthouse is the award-winning author of The Concubine Saga. When you love a Chinese woman, you marry her family and culture too. This is the love story Sir Robert Hart did not want the world to discover.

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2 Responses to China’s Translation Sensation

  1. Aussie in China says:

    Zhang Lu has made a literal translation of Qu Yuan for western audiences while Chinese audiences know that Premier Wen in quoting Qu Yuan is among other things declaring his love for his country as did Qu Yuan in many of his poems.

  2. Note from Blog host – This comment for this post from a Chinese citizen in China arrived in an E-mail. Most Chinese are private so I left off the individual’s name. I felt it was worth sharing and made no corrections to spelling or grammar. After all, it is an e-mail – not a novel or short story sold through Amazon.

    Haha, that is a very interesting observation, because of the Chinese’s long history with continuity, we speak often with association of the past. so without understanding of Chinese culture, it would be difficult to understand its implication, part of the reason why Chinese is difficult to learn, it’s the culture. Historically Chinese does not differentiate philosophy, literature, history, they are all combined in the writing and its rhythem. Unlike India, thanks for Emperor Qin that we have the unified written character which lasts to ensure the culture consistency depite we speak different dilects. but for my understanding China should have 400-500 dilects instead of 50? And subtitle in the movies are for disadvntaged or foreigners?

    Yes, it would be wierd if Amican President quoted from Latin or Old English simply because Latin and Old English is not their origin. The grandeur western civilation starts from Greece, with mix of Egypt and middle east coutries. It would be odd if Wen quoted a foreign story to illustrate something he wants to deliver in China, few can understand even the story might share the same human nature. The power of the quoting is to use the simpe language to deliver a profound message that he wants all to know.

    As for the interpretation, different from translation, it would be difficult to make a perfect translation within such short a time and under such a serious occason. I myself has been tested for advanced interpretation license a ery long time ago, the training is intense. As long as the message is delivered correctly, it’s should be fine, after all Zhang said ‘ ultimately history will have the final say’. well just my two cents.

    But it’s an interesting thing happening here in regard to the language, with the ‘invasion’ of internet, communication becomes more and more efficient. In the meantime, more and more Chinese can speak English or at least can read English, Chinese is becoming more lively if not comply with tradition. e.g. last year one of the hottest word in China is ‘ hold’ which is borrowed from English to express something that no Chinese character is fashionable enough to use. And I noticed the pronounciation starts to change too, e.g. 什么 becomes 神马, 没有 becomes 木有, it might be just a transitional thing, but who can guaratee it won’t lead to a further change, after all language should pace up to adapt itself to the economic growth. Our language is different from our parents’. nobody can stop it. Language is dynamic and so is art.

    I recently bougt a text book of 中央美院, introducing foreign painting with very detailed description of how the painting culture goes from cave to modern, a very interesting book to open my eyes, But it’s black and white, fortunately with google, this book becomes a vey good guidebook for me, a new learner.

    recently I have been reading ‘ the painted veil’ , ‘ sister carrie’ and ‘ the great gatsby’. i liked the painted veil, just the story is too bleak.

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