A Failure to Communicate Or Lost In Translation?

As someone who can read and speak Hebrew, I’ve always found certain translations of the (Hebrew) Bible to be odd. Leaving aside versions that aren’t really in modern English such as the King James Bible, there’s usually something lost. Not the straightforward meaning (“so-and-so went to place X”), but there is a tone, a way the words are used for literary effect that often goes missing (the best English translation I’ve ever read is the Jewish Theological Seminary’s Second Edition; the more recent edition isn’t as good in my opinion).

Recently, the Chinese government has clamped down on foreign news sources (boldface mine):

Marking the first visit since taking office three years ago, Mr. Xi urged editors and reporters to pledge absolute loyalty to the party and closely follow its leadership in “thought, politics, and action.”

“The media run by the party and the government are the propaganda fronts and must have the party as their family name,” Xi told the propaganda workers, according to the AP.

“All the work by the party’s media must reflect the party’s will, safeguard the party’s authority, and safeguard the party’s unity,” Xi said. “They must love the party, protect the party, and closely align themselves with the party leadership in thought, politics and action.”

On the one hand, the meaning is absolutely clear. But to me, this sounds really clunky; it’s definitely not good-sounding propaganda. So is this a translation problem? Are there cultural references that are just going over my Western head? Or is this just really bad propaganda?

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3 Responses to A Failure to Communicate Or Lost In Translation?

  1. bob says:

    One of the clunky phrases you comment on reminds me of the paraphrase that one often sees of Wilson’s 1914 message to Congress: “neutral in thought, word, and deed.” His message actually said “The United States must be neutral in fact, as well as in name, during these days that are to try men’s souls. We must be impartial in thought, as well as action, must put a curb upon our sentiments, as well as upon every transaction that might be construed as a preference of one party to the struggle before another.” – just as bad, constitutionally, but the phrasing is not as clunky. When war came to Europe again, in September, 1939, Roosevelt used a Fireside Chat to say “The nation will remain a neutral nation, but I cannot ask that every American remain neutral in thought as well.”

  2. Crprod says:

    For people who believe that the King James translation is the sole divinely inspired one, there is no alternative: http://av1611.com/kjbp/articles/mcelroy-nkjv.html

  3. kaleberg says:

    A lot of it is clunky translation. The sheer number of Chinese translations that choose “middle” over “central” or “pigeon” over “dove” and wind up with odd sounding phrases like “middle mountain city” or “flying pigeon bicycle” suggests either laziness or tight deadlines.

    I’m guessing that we are missing a lot. For example, “thought, politics and action”, mentioned twice here, sounds like “liberty, equality, fraternity” or “justice for all”. It’s a political phrase so often used that it is no longer a series of words with individual meaning, but has a connotation of its own. The word “propaganda” is almost certainly being used in its old sense of a demonstration for advancing the faith, not in its more modern sense. The “family name” thing must ring a lot more deeply in a society where ancestor worship is a familiar religious practice as opposed to the west where it is exotic.

    In other words, it sounds a lot better in the original.

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