How China can counter translation bias
Published: Apr 12, 2022 09:01 PM
The Great Translation Movement Illustration: Chen Xia/GT

The Great Translation Movement Illustration: Chen Xia/GT

In recent years, Western public opinion has often been subject to mistranslations, omissions, additions and twisted interpretations of some key issues and events related to China.  

There are two prominent examples of this phenomenon.

First, objective constraints, especially mistranslations in the absence of appropriate political and economic contexts and professional backgrounds, make it difficult to understand unique Chinese concepts. As a resource that relies on experience to understand and represent meaning, language is distinctly systematic, with the accurate encoding and decoding of a concept requiring the support of a whole set of linguistic resources. At present, the international community generally lacks systematic knowledge of China's political and economic contexts and traditional Chinese culture, and naturally faces difficulties in understanding some unique Chinese concepts. 

In addition, China's rapidly developing social practices are constantly giving rise to new concepts and expressions. For example, many foreign media were puzzled by the "zero-COVID in the unquarantined public," meaning halting community transmission in the epidemic prevention and control, which was translated confusingly as "social zero COVID" in the BBC's April 9 report. 

Next we encounter subjective motives, that is, omissions and intentionally crafted translations designed to stigmatize China, deliberately blocking and distorting Chinese information out of the need for international political competition. Some countries and regions these years have been fighting a war of public opinion against China through a series of projects, and China-related translation is an important component. 

Based on their own ideological positions and political interests, some Western politicians, media, and scholars selectively choose materials to translate and take their meaning out of context. One example is a line attributed to Ren Zhengfei, Huawei CEO, which was originally "fighting your way out of a difficult situation," but the line was inappropriately translated by Western media as "surge forward, killing as you go, to blaze us a trail of blood."

Translations with the purpose of stigmatizing China are scaling up and becoming more systematic. Judging from the tactics of anti-China forces, it's quite normal to see the strategy of selecting extremely typical online comments for translation and reposting them on social media at home and abroad in order to create confrontations between China and other countries and tear communities apart. There are also overseas accounts that have launched the so-called Great Translation Movement, translating extreme comments made by domestic internet celebrities or netizens into foreign languages to vilify China. This tactic has now become a typical strategy for some anti-China media to gain audiences. 

Besides, stigmatization has increasingly appeared in automatic translation with the use of translation algorithms. Due to the rapid development of big data, cloud computing and other technologies, as well as the explosive growth of multilingual information corpus, especially the application of neural models, the quality of machine translation has improved rapidly. Machine translation has been widely used in international communications. For instance, international mainstream social media platforms like Twitter teamed up with Google to provide instant translation services. With today's technological limits, machine translation is basically literal translation. Its accuracy still needs to be improved and it is unable to accurately represent the emotion the original text intends to convey in the context. 

As a result, technical blunders involving Chinese-related translation have emerged one after another. For example, in Chinese political discourse, we often say jiaqiang guanli, which means "to improve management." But it is literally translated as "enhance the management." In the English context, such a translation has a strong implication indicating those being managed have to obey, and are deprived of individual liberty, or free will. 

Language studies theory suggests that languages are produced and circulated by naming things and providing explanations. The right of naming and the right of interpretation are the core of the discourse power, as they presuppose the position and perspective of viewing and interpreting issues, which affects the public's social cognition and value judgment. 

Therefore, chaos in Chinese-related translation internationally has caused a serious "Babel effect" in our exchanges with the outside world, that is, misunderstanding, misjudgment and even conflicts caused by language barriers have seriously hindered China's international image building and the improvement of China's international discourse power. 

As the weak side in the international public opinion sphere, China must grasp the initiative in the translation of key concepts related to China, play a leading role in constructing the international discourse over China-related issues, actively participate in the translation of international common expressions related to China, and provide public translation services to the international community.

Specifically speaking, we can establish a special political discourse keyword database. We can set up an online library, especially for commonly used political discourse with strong implications and open it up to the international community. It's also suggested that we work with relevant departments and enterprises to correct discriminate translations regarding historical events and that we provide translations of important speeches, publicly available documents and reports by Chinese leadership and organs of the Party, governments and the military to the world more currently. At the same time, we should use the voluntary forces on the internet to discover and correct various problems in Chinese-related translations to maintain the objectivity and impartiality of the international public opinion. 

The author is a professor at the School of Journalism, Fudan University. opinion@globaltimes.com.cn