Home Politics “Zero Translation” In China, Chinese Sparks Controversy

“Zero Translation” In China, Chinese Sparks Controversy

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It’s not by any means unheard of to find yourself on a packed Shanghai subway and to overhear a smattering of English words such as “okay”, “Bye Bye” and “email” entering into a conversation that until a moment ago was wholly held in Mandarin or Shanghainese.

“Zero translation”

Written Chinese is also filled with a number of acronyms like GDP, WTO, MBA, bookended by traditional Chinese characters. Ironically, “PM2.5” also gets this distinction. PM2.5 is a term used when speaking of air pollution, and there are no shortages of uses for PM2.5 in the Middle Kingdom.

While this has been trending upwards for some time, many are looking to put an end to the practice of “zero translation.” In a recent piece by the Chinese Communist Party’s official newspaper People’s Daily, the publication asked, “Why is zero translation so prevalent?” The following text was used to describe the growing “problem” in the eyes of many


“Why do we have translations for Nokia and Motorola, but not for iPhone or iPad?” ask the authors.

“How many people can understand these words?” the article asks. Having lived in China for a few years while lecturing for various programs offered by the University of Wales throughout China I will hazard a guess of quite a few hundreds of millions.

The Chinese are “speaking” English more and more, and many have found “zero translation” the easiest solution. However, there remains a large group (there are no small groups in China, I once lived in a “village” of seven million) that believes that “zero translation” is an affront to Chinese language and culture and are calling for an end to the practice.

The growth of English

Never mind that you can’t walk 200 meters in larger Chinese cities without meeting an army of hawkers intent to sell you knock-off DVDs of English language television series and movies for mere pennies.

The NBA is hugely popular in China, but the term was banned on Chinese TV in 2010 with a nod to ??? (mei zhi lan), which literally translates to American professional basketball instead. While we’re at it, let’s force the Chinese to no longer take English names when studying the language. It was save the trouble of me rolling my eyes when I hear a female student tell me her name is Frappacino or Vanilla Latte.

Chinese is not a terrifically practical language. Order eight dishes in a restaurant and watch your server take ten minutes to write them if you don’t believe me. But there will always be a call to “keep it Chinese all the time” and don’t expect those calls to end anytime soon when China takes over as the world’s largest economy later this year and the Eastern triumph is trumpeted in the papers. Whether that will include GDP rather than a translation is the only question.

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Brendan Byrne

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