Spreading the word across the world

Updated: 2015-05-14 07:43

By Luo Wangshu(China Daily)

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'Winning a jackpot'

Qing Xuemin, deputy director of the Central Document Translation Center, started his career by translating documents into Japanese. Now, having worked at the bureau for a number of decades, regular documents and routine translation work can seem mundane. "I love a challenge and I look forward to new words, difficult ones. When I figure out difficult terms and words, it's like winning a jackpot," he said.

Wang spoke enthusiastically about finding the "perfect" word for a translation. "Sometimes, we're thrilled when we find a perfect match in English. It's never boring. For me, the work is like a treasure hunt," she said. "People who choose this job really do love words."

To improve the quality of the translated texts and provide deeper understanding of foreign readers' perspectives, the bureau has hired about 20 native speakers, some of whom have lived in China for decades.

Holly Snape is one of them. She said a large part of her job involves preventing misconceptions about China.

"In the West there are some fixed ideas about how China is, or how the Party is. So, for example, before the actual meeting (at the Fourth Plenary Session of the 18th Central Committee of the CPC), we'd already heard about the theme (law-based governance) and we knew that the Western media was already reporting what the theme was going to be.

"Because we knew what it was going to be about, we already had some translations in the Western media. The translation they used the most was 'rule by law' and 'rule of law' instead of our phrase, "law-based governance', so that shows what kind of preconceived ideas Western audiences may have," said the doctoral student, who majored in Asian Studies at the University of Bristol in the United Kingdom.

"We not only have to think about making sure we fully understand the meaning, so that our translation is absolutely precise; we also have to think about not further deepening that kind of preconceived idea, or strengthening it, so we try to avoid situations where that can happen," she added.

The translation center has eight departments: two handle translations into English, while the others deal with French, Spanish, Russian, Japanese, Arabic and German. There are nearly 60 full-time employees, and about 10 retired and visiting members.

Wang is a thin woman in her late 30s. Wearing a long-sleeved striped blouse, and with her hair tied up in simple braids, she spoke slowly, softly and calmly. If one didn't know better, it would be hard to believe that she's responsible for introducing China's most authoritative documents to the English-speaking world.

The team hires top students from China's best foreign language studies universities, including Beijing Foreign Studies University, Beijing Language and Culture University, and Shanghai International Studies University. "The majority of staff members are quiet people, who are willing and able to sit down for hours and enjoy the beauty of words," Wang said.

Intense workload

Although the teams project an air of quiet industry, the workload can be intense when deadlines are tight, or assignments arrive at short notice. If the work is confidential, the translators are required to live away from home for the duration of the translation period.

"After we have translated the government report, we are not allowed to go home before it is published," Qing said.

Although the translation teams were established informally in the 1950s to deal with China's top leaders and thinkers, the Central Document Translation Center was officially launched in 1962. It was immediately given the task of translating the writings of Mao Zedong.

As the central government became more aware of the necessity of introducing its current lines of thought and strategic plans to a global audience, the bureau was set to work translating political documents too.

In 1977, it translated the proceedings of the National People's Congress, and the following year, it moved on to the annual reports of the "two sessions" - the NPC and the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference.

In the past three decades, China has become an increasingly powerful player on the global stage. To cater to the increasing need for people overseas to understand the country, the central government has acknowledged the importance and urgency of cross-border communication, not only to promote China's traditional culture, but also to highlight the country's political policies.

That growing responsibility has widened the scope of the bureau's work, and it now routinely translates documents from the CPC's annual plenary sessions, which used to be translated only occasionally in response to central government requirements.

The new approach began in October at the Fourth Plenary Session of the 18th Central Committee of the CPC. The resulting documents were translated and published in a series of books in English, French, Spanish, Russian, Japanese, Arabic and German.

According to Wang, the work is always challenging because many idiomatic or demotic Chinese expressions cannot be translated directly, so they are extremely difficult to explain to people outside China. "The challenges we are facing are not only linguistic, but equally important, there are cultural and systemic differences," she said.

Qing said foreigners "who are connected to China" - for example, researchers, foreign embassies, and foreign-invested companies in the country - have long been eager to study the bureau's "products".

"In the early 1990s. I received a phone call from a Japanese company in Fujian province requesting a Japanese-language version of Deng Xiaoping's works. Foreign companies often attempt to divine possible futures and prospects from the books written by the country's leaders," he said.

Jia Gaojian, head of the Central Compilation and Translation Bureau, said the bureau's work is crucial to helping people outside China learn about the country: "As China continues to develop, there is an urgent need to strengthen communications with the world. We must provide sufficient information so the world can understand China."

Liu Mingqing, head of the bureau's publishing arm, plans to promote the translated works at international book fairs, including those in New York and Frankfurt.

Each country has its own view of the world, but China's long history and deeply embedded culture can make it appear baffling to the outside world.

When Dong Qing, director of the international department of the Chinese Academy of Governance, organized training sessions with a group of foreign government employees, she found it difficult to discover an effective method of conveying Chinese concepts. "I said one thing, but the trainees understood something different," she said, adding that after much thought she eventually worked out a way of getting her message across.

"Employees of foreign governments are eager to learn about China's current policies, and the government documents are their guidebooks," she said, and urged the inclusion of footnotes to explain obscure or historical points would promote greater understanding of the material.

Wu Yongping, a professor at Tsinghua University's School of Public Policy and Management, said the time has come to make China's voice clearer and louder through the translation of a larger number of authoritative documents.

"That would be an extremely effective way of boosting China's soft power and expressing the Party's values, beliefs and policies," he said.

Contact the writer at luowangshu@chinadaily.com.cn

Spreading the word across the world


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