Some Chinese words are untranslatable. Photo: Reuters

China must make its mark on global language map on its own terms

Thorsten Pattberg calls on scholars, artists and writers to promote the use of Chinese words

Most people believe that the secret to promoting Chinese culture is to have as many foreigners as possible studying the Chinese language. But there is a better way.

The difference between promoting and inhibiting one's culture often lies in "translation". All writers should be aware of the unwritten law of "cultural property rights" - when to translate, what translation does, and where to avoid it.

The English language is often hailed as the "international language", but it is not the global language. In fact, the global language will have to adopt tens of thousands of non-European concepts from China, India and Japan. The list goes on.

Currently, great efforts are made by Chinese scholars to promote East Asian terms into the global lexicon: Chinese words like (which is often translated to "under heaven"), (a sage) and (a gentleman), and even the mythical (dragon).

The reason is simple: scientists so far may have indexed the animal and plant kingdoms, and the material world, but we're only just putting together a taxonomy of culture.

Capitalism has taught us that nations should compete for market share, natural resources and human capital. In fact, nations should also compete for their terminologies. The main task for Chinese artists, writers, journalists and academics is (no matter how international they are), as I see it, to choose the correct Chinese names and terms each and every time over misleading English translations.


Why? Because, just like in real life, if we give our names, ideas and inventions away to another group, that group might quickly put another name to it and thereby automatically obtain what the Germans call - the sovereignty over the definition of thought.

It is quite surprising that few have noticed this before: people fight over brand names, patents, publications (that is, who said what first) and intellectual property rights, yet when it comes to a token of their own cultural inventiveness, Asians tend to think first: what will Americans call this?

Translation is the oldest profession. It is reducing the world to what we already know. In this digital age, however, we now have the computational capacities to expand our knowledge systems. We can now begin to find the "untranslatables" in each culture and return them to "world history".

Japan is already ahead of China. Most readers in the West have heard about Japanese concepts like sushi, sumo, Zen, tsunami, manga, anime and the Tenno. Those terms are part of the Japanese socio-cultural originality; they couldn't be translated into European languages without losing their intended meanings, and thus were adopted.


Chinese, too, should be encouraged to go out and find the untranslatable words of Chinese origin, and, if they can, forbid themselves the way of all-too-convenient Western translations.

As a golden rule, each and every culture holds valuable information for all the others. However, most foreign terms that were adopted in the West come from the realms of entertainment or aesthetics, like kung fu or feng shui.


However, in the fields of politics, economics, the humanities and social sciences, the "global language" is kept virtually Chinese-free. It need not be so.

China and Japan are not alone. India, the other ancient civilisation, wants her stake in global language, too. Think about Hindu concepts like avatar, guru, pundit, karma and yoga that have already found their way into the global lexicon.

Nations cannot expect all Westerners to study Chinese or any other foreign language in all its complexity of vocabulary, grammar and etymology. But what each man of letters can do is to promote China's key concepts, names and terminologies to the outside world. Let them know what a is.


It won't be easy to stand up against hundreds of years of translation history. But it is feasible; it can be done once people become aware that the vocabularies of the world's languages all add to ideas, but they don't overlap.

Names are a global resource, and we will never run out of old and new things, ideas and concepts, to spend them on.

Translation is an archaic and unscientific business. In this digital age, we still need to simplify communication, of course, but not where it destroys existential information. No one can remember so much vocabulary in his head, but we now have computer hard drives and digital encyclopedia to help us compose the future global language.


Eastern cultures should compete for their key terminologies, find the untranslatable words and promote them.

If the Chinese don't bring their own vocabularies to the table, our so-called world history will forever be a Western tale.

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: China must make its mark on the global language map on its own terms