Language Matters: How a Minor Mistranslation Can Affect US-China Relations
Earlier this week, Reuters posted a short report quoting the official spokesman of China’s Ministry of National Defense as saying “there is no such thing as man-made islands” in response to a question about the South China Sea. This curious statement was quoted in the story’s headline, and the quote and the story were then republished by several other media outlets around the world. These stories led Sebastian Gorka, a top official on the U.S. National Security Council, to deride China’s statement by pointing out that the islands can be seen on Google Earth. Gorka then went on to decry China’s “territorial expansionism.”
But there is just one problem with this story and Gorka’s reaction to it. It is all based on a minor but non-trivial mistranslation of the Chinese spokesman’s comments. And although this mistranslation had only a minor impact, this whole episode is a cautionary tale of how even a tiny nuance in language and translation can negatively affect U.S.-China relations.
On March 30, the Chinese Ministry of National Defense held a press conference for reporters in Beijing. The spokesman, Senior Colonel Wu Qian, was asked a series of questions, including some about reports in the U.S. media describing the completion of facilities on China’s controversial South China Sea man-made islands. The official MND English translation reported Wu’s response as the following:
Firstly, there is no “man-made” islands. Secondly, the Nansha Islands are inherently Chinese territory. Whether we build facilities on these islands, what we do and how we do that are within our sovereign rights..
This official translation appears to be the origin of the Reuters report, although Reuters added the words “no such thing” to the official MND translation. Either way, it makes the Chinese seem arrogant in blithely rejecting even the existence of the artificial islands. Alternatively, it suggested China doesn’t think it is building islands, but simply building on top of existing islands.
But in reviewing the original Chinese transcript, I noticed that Wu actually said:
To me (and several of my fellow Chinese-reading Twitter friends), the first sentence in Wu’s statement should really be translated as something closer to “First, no issue with the ‘man-made islands’ exists” (emphasis added). When the word “issue” (roughly a translation of wenti问题) is added back into the translation, the meaning of Wu’s statement is less startling. Read more…