Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Continuously Lost in Translation

Part of the challenge of dealing with culture not one's own, whether it be for business, academia or diplomacy is finding a common language in which one can communicate with others.

A few comments on Twitter and Google Reader about yesterday's post bring this difficulty to light. Part of the upshot of that post was that perhaps many outside of China had mistranslated guo tui min jin to mean "privatization" when that was not the understanding of those in China who propounded the policy.

I would even suggest that when Chinese use the word "privatization" in English language conversation, their understanding may also be different from that of native English speakers who use the same word.

We tend to define both 民营化 (minyinghua) and 私有化 (siyouhua) as "privatization", and vice-versa. As I showed in yesterday's post, the Chinese do not define minyinghua and siyouhua as the same thing. However, a glance at both Google Translate and Babelfish shows these two terms as interchangeable with the English word "privatization".

Based on discussions that have taken place since yesterday's post, I feel safe in saying that privatization and minyinghua do not have precisely the same meanings. As nearly as I can tell, here is what they do mean:

privatization = absence of government involvement

民营化 = presence of non-government involvement

To illustrate, when the US Government finally sells its 60 percent stake in General Motors, this will be considered a "privatization". But the Chinese definition of minyinghua is already satisfied at the present because the other 40 percent of General Motors shares are in the hands of non-governmental entities (the UAW, institutional and private investors).

In China the fact that many of China's large SOEs are now publicly traded and minority positions are held by non-governmental entities counts as 民营化, and if our dictionaries are to be believed, it also counts as privatization. However, in this case, we are better off not trusting our dictionaries.

As a bonus, here's another term that we often get wrong.

Our dictionaries define 外国人 (waiguoren, literally, "outside person") as "foreigner", and vice-versa. However, when Chinese citizens visit the United States, they do not consider themselves to be 外国人.


Because the opposite of 外国人 is 中国人 (zhongguoren) or Chinese person (literally, person from the Central Kingdom). Their identities as 中国人 do not change when they leave China.

So while I refer to Chinese visitors in America as "foreigners", and I refer to myself as a "foreigner" when I visit China, the Chinese always refer to me as 外国人 and themselves as 中国人, irrespective of location.

And while I fully agree with the sage advice of Dan Harris at ChinaLawBlog to write your agreements with Chinese counterparties in Chinese, you may also want to ensure that you and your counterparties agree on what all of the words mean.

I know there are many other equally confusing Chinese-English translations. Which ones have you come across?

The next post in this series can be found here.