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China-US relations

War of words: how the United States got lost in Chinese translation

  • US officials accused of manipulating textual nuances in Chinese warfare book to support tough China policy
  • US author accuses China of using a ‘secret code’ in its language to hide a plot to top the US as a world power
PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 24 October, 2018, 6:33am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 24 October, 2018, 10:57pm

As US-China tensions rise, hawks in both countries agree on one thing: America’s understanding of China has been lost in translation.

The sides – which are locked in a trade war – accuse each other of misusing – or misappropriating – the ambiguity of the Chinese language.

Some Beijing officials have accused those in the United States of manipulating the language’s nuances to move American public opinion and decision-making to favour US interests. For their part, however, US hawks have been far harsher in linking the words that Chinese people use for communication to a plot to displace the US as the global superpower.

“The language’s very complexity is like a secret code,” wrote Michael Pillsbury, a White House adviser and author of The Hundred-Year Marathon, a book said to have greatly influenced the Trump administration’s hard-nosed China policy.

Pillsbury argued in his 2015 book that China’s hawks used the intricacies of the Chinese language to conceal a century long “strategic deception” plan aimed at overtaking the US as the top superpower.

For instance, Pillsbury wrote, China officially translated former leader Deng Xiaoping’s description of his tao guang yang hui foreign policy strategy as “bide your time, build your capability”. The translation disguised the idiomatic subtleties of what Pillsbury called the real intention of Deng’s strategy: “prepare for revenge”.

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In another example, Pillsbury quoted former Chinese premier Zhou Enlai as referring to America as the “Ba” during a meeting with then-US president Richard Nixon. Although the word was officially translated as “leader”, Pillsbury’s book said the translation sought to hide the word’s actual negative meaning of “hegemony” or “tyrant” to keep Americans from picking up on China’s hostility towards the US.

“What we all must do better is to look not just at speeches but also at the context of those speeches, and we need to look for larger hidden meanings,” Pillsbury wrote. “For well over a half-century, Americans have failed to do this.”

There was reason to be concerned that the US had few “China experts” who actually spoke Chinese, Pillsbury wrote.

Cui Tiankai, China’s US ambassador, has denounced the book as an unreliable guide to understanding China. In an interview with Fox News, Cui said he would not recommend Pillsbury’s book. “There are much better books,” he said.

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Meanwhile, the Chinese side has said it believes that US hawks intentionally mistranslated Chinese books on the US to mislead both US policymakers and the American public.

A case in point is Unrestricted Warfare, a 1999 book on military strategy by PLA colonels Qiao Liang and Wang Xiangsui. It focuses on how a developing nation such as China could defeat a technologically superior opponent such as the US.

Qiao has condemned the book’s English translation as error-filled, starting with the title.

“The title should be translated as War Beyond Limits, rather than Unrestricted Warfare,” he wrote in the preface to a new edition of the book. The original Chinese title sought to sum up the book’s endeavour to describe a strategy of warfare that would break down traditional boundaries, but still adhere to certain restrictions, Qiao said.

Qiao also complained that a subtitle added later, War and Strategy in the Globalisation Era, was reworded into China’s Master Plan to Destroy America in an English edition of the book.

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“It is not only far from the truth, but absurd and even has ulterior motives,” the co-author said.

In his book, Pillsbury had said Unrestricted Warfare exemplified China’s plan to use “asymmetrical warfare, including terrorism, to attack the United States”.

Qiao has dismissed the suggestion that he was advocating terrorism. He blamed the misunderstanding on mistranslations that changed his description of witnessing a terror attack from a negative “in shock” into a more positive “in surprise”.

“The impression of those who read the book in English is that [China hands] move from terrorism researchers to terrorists,” Qiao said.

“My book was only intended to emphasise how a weaker country should deal with a strong power.”

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Saying Americans have deeply misunderstood China, Qiao denounced Pillsbury’s theory of a 100-year plan as “a very foolish judgment” that reflected an imperialist and outdated mindset.

“In the current world it is no more about who will replace whom,” the co-author said. “Rather, it is a competition of competitiveness.”

Although China’s international standing suffers when books such as these are intentionally mistranslated by “certain people and forces for their own purposes”, Qiao acknowledged that the distortions could be caused by translators with weak Chinese-language skills.

Some observers see irony in the Trump administration’s obsession with questionable translations of Chinese books, given the high level of proficiency in the language that has been shown by the US president’s seven-year-old granddaughter Arabella Kushner.

Arabella, the daughter of Donald Trump’s daughter Ivanka Trump and son-in-law Jared Kushner, learned to speak Mandarin from a Chinese nanny. She spoke it well enough to recite an ancient Chinese poem for Xi Jinping during the Chinese leader’s US visit last year.