From the Expats

Finding what has been lost in translation

By Pauline D Loh (China Daily)
Updated: 2013-03-07 07:01

The Tower of Babel is a story in the Bible that best illustrates the value of being multilingual. There was a time when all men spoke one language, the book says, but they started quarreling so God decided they were better off not understanding each other.

We have gone full cycle. Now men quarrel because they don't understand each other, and are suspicious because they do not share a common language, culture or skin color.

That's the point. Language goes beyond linguistics. Its nuances are cultivated and built upon history, culture and common use.

So it is that American English is different from the Queen's English, and within the United Kingdom itself, various pockets of subjects speak variations of English almost incomprehensible to the other. Received Pronunciation was heard only on the BBC, but even the BBC is now peppered with different accents.

In China, language is not a problem internally. Thanks to the Emperor Qinshihuang, we all share a common writing that transcends even the thickest country dialects. But when it comes to conversing with the world, China is still stuttering.

Most of China looks out through a haze of translations, some of which have assumed a life of their own.

The names of Hollywood films and their stars take on multi-character names even their mothers may not recognize, but which trip easily off the tongues of film buffs young and old. Enough jokes have been posted online about funny typos or badly translated items on English menus in Chinese restaurants. This only makes food seem more exotic than it actually is and propagates the myths that the Chinese only eat odd animal parts.

Ordering a caf latte at a Starbucks in Beijing, you better know how to say it in Chinese, which sounds roughly like "pulled iron". And look carefully before you order those burgers. A Big Mac is known locally as a Big Bully.

For foreign journalists under tight deadlines, trying to extract information from ministry websites can be bewildering, but no more so than faced with a stack of colored tissue papers printed with tiny Chinese characters when at a bank trying to transfer funds or open an account.

Civil servants, generally efficient in the New Age, IT-savvy China, turn stony-faced when presented with documents not issued in China, and not in Chinese.

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