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How to precisely convey China's political discourse to the West

Updated:2022-04-02 14:40:01   Ecns.cn

Will the translation of "加强党的建设" into "Party Building" mislead foreigners by making them think China is talking about a building where they could take children to hold their birthday party? In a situation where the Western media control the international discourse, how can we manifest China's real image and true stories, and precisely convey China's voices to the West? What might be the effective solutions to the Western media's stigmatization?

China News Service's W.E.Talk invited Honorary Chief English Editor of Foreign Languages Press, CICG, who has been editing China's political works and contributing to China's external communication for more than 10 years, to answer these questions.

Here's the excerpt of the dialogue.

CNS:As China's international influence increases, Western countries are giving greater emphasis to affairs in China, but the disappointing results are misinterpretation and misunderstanding. Why does information that China wants to convey to the West often end in misunderstanding?

David Ferguson: It's a mistake to consider it as a "misunderstanding", which suggests a problem that can be resolved by providing facts and reason. The fact is that China is being subjected to a deliberate campaign of misrepresentation and stigmatization by Western media and politicians, with the intent of creating hostility to China. The USA calls the shots in the Western world. The USA has been "top dog" in the world for a relatively short period of time in historical terms, but it now sees a challenger to its predominance, and as usual its first response is to lash out – to destroy a "China Threat" that only exists in its rather twisted psyche – rather than to seek partnership and accommodation. The rest of the West is simply trotting along behind USA. Some Western media create stories, not truths on China-related subjects.

China has to recognize that trying to solve the problem by "explaining things better" is no use. The people behind the campaign have no intention of allowing China to present a more balanced and accurate picture, and they have the power to block or distort information coming from the Chinese side because the international discourse is in the hands of Western media.

CNS: Some Western media tend to interpret China's political discourse in the wrong way, or even with ill intentions. What might be the effective solutions to this situation?

David Ferguson: Accepting that a deliberate campaign of misrepresentation and stigmatization by Western media and politicians is ongoing in the international arena, I think the best way for China to tackle the situation is to invest more in its informal discourse – its soft power – and to directly reach out to Western audiences.

For example they can bypass the western media through movies – bear in mind that a movie goes direct to its final audience without being distorted through local political and media filters. The Chinese are good at making big movies. "My Country, My People", the movie released for China's 70th Anniversary is such a clever film. China should preserve its formal political discourse as China's official voice, and at the same time it should develop its informal discourse, to engage with Western audiences on a human level.

CNS:Facing foreigners who have no idea of China's history or culture, how do we make them better understand China's political discourse? Can you please identify the problems in translating China's policies and political concepts?

David Ferguson: The most important issue in translating political discourse is not just translating words but presenting a message.

For example, we can often see the word “科学” in China's political discourse. But in most cases, it will be directly translated into "science" or "scientific". But in English, "science" refers to natural science, which is obviously not the meaning of “科学” in China's political discourse. The Scientific Outlook on Development is a perfect example of this. This represented a massive transformation in China's development strategy – a switch from purely economic growth to a balanced strategy considering economic, social, and environmental factors. But the English words chosen capture nothing of this – they make it sound like some kind of technocratic scheme involving chemistry and physics. So China missed a huge opportunity to send a vital and important message to the world about a fundamental strategic change.

China's political discourse is very conceptual and abstract in nature, so you have to deconstruct the concept and provide Western audiences with the actual meaning behind the concept. An example of good translation is Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics For a New Era.

Xi Jinping Thought represents a philosophy and a set of values and principles that will endure for decades. Therefore great care was given to the precise wording. Every syllable had to be weighed and optimized.

The initial formulation used the words "in the new era". However, it was felt that this suggested that the "new era" was something that was being imposed on China by external forces, and that China was reacting. After consideration by all the most senior experts in Chinese translation circles, it was agreed to use "for a new era". This implies more that China is driving and proactively controlling the development trends of the new era.

And "Party building" is one of the biggest problems. It's a very important and often-used expression, but if you say it to an English speaker who knows nothing about China's discourse, their first reaction will be that you are talking about a building where you take children to hold their birthday party. Thus it should be translated as "strengthening the Party".

CNS:When conveying China's political to the West, how can we make China's discourse into an international discourse? When translating China's policies and political concepts, what will cause misunderstandings among western audiences? And how can we avoid them?

David Ferguson: English is the international language, so China has to make its discourse understandable in English. 80 years ago Chairman Mao made a speech during the Yan'an Rectification – which he called Oppose Stereotyped Party Writing – in which he criticized the Party's writing style.

Then in 2005, when he was the Party Secretary of Zhejiang, President Xi wrote an article detailing similar criticisms, and warning against issues like repetition, verbosity, clichés, and formulaic writing.

China has to adopt these counsels when conveying its political discourse to foreigners. Things like the Two Upholds, the Three Represents, the Four Confidences, etc. may confuse the Western public which therefore has no idea of their importance and what is behind them.

We need a completely new approach that starts by recognizing that there's a problem. We need to stop fussing about whether something is "the same as the Chinese" and start looking to create a message that is understandable. The best way to do that is to ask yourself the question "How would a native English speaker express this?" rather than "How can we translate this Chinese?"

CNS: If we say, translation is a cross-cultural process, can conveyance of China's political discourse somehow correct Western preconceptions towards China?

David Ferguson: In my view it is an issue of culture not translation. But I think translators and interpreters should play a far more active role in the process of conveying China’s political discourse.

Creativity has to play a greater role in political translation than other translations, because political discourse is dry in nature and hard to understand,so translators and interpreters should learn to not only translate the words but also analyze the message and even make some adaptations. This is one way to correct western preconceptions towards China, which are a result of Western media misinterpretation and stigmatization.

David W. Ferguson, Honorary Chief English Editor of Foreign Languages Press, CICG, recipient of the Chinese Government Friendship Award and the Special Book Award of China.

Keywords:   China's political discourse