Headline unavailable due to inadequacy of English language

I’m not sure how people manage to become scholars at the Institute of World Literature of Peking University. According to the blurb, they all have “strong professional competence and high academic achievement”, but they would say that wouldn’t they? I can’t help wondering whether the deal is that you get a cushy office and a nice apartment (by the standards of academe) and in return you have to produce politically correct claptrap that flatters your hosts.

This springs to mind on reading an article in China Daily by one Thorsten Pattberg (not on-line, but it’s a lightly bowdlerized hand-me-down from the erratic Asia Times). He argues that the naughty Western world has overlooked superior Chinese morality because its languages lack the capacity to express the necessary Sinic concepts.

I estimate that there are over 35,000 Chinese words or phrases that cannot properly be translated into the English language. Words like yin and yang, kung-fu and fengshui.

All three of those phrases touch on unscientific mysticism concerning things like energy flows, and in this respect we could say that we have an excellent all-purpose translation for all them, namely ‘baloney’. But in fact, English has a precise phrase for each, namely ‘yin and yang’, ‘kung-fu’ and ‘fengshui’. The author also tells us that the phrase wenming is untranslatable and then proceeds to do just that (‘a high level of ethics and gentleness of a people’), but not before warning us against using ‘civilization’, especially as the noble but too-profound-for-Westerners-to-grasp Chinese word is 1,000 years old and the nasty Western one a late-18th century ‘invention’. No mention of anyone strolling past a little girl bleeding to death, of course.

The idea that people of one culture cannot understand (let alone share) the concepts of another for lack of specific vocabulary is idiotic, but maybe this is what you have to do at Peking U. Meanwhile, I can recommend Through the Language Glass by Guy Deutscher, which explains, for example, how some peoples get by without a word for ‘blue’ (it’s just a type of green to them, and they get by fine).

Back on Planet Lychee, and former HK Monetary Authority boss Joseph Yam comes out in favour of ex-Chief Secretary Henry Tang as the city’s next Chief Executive. This is not a surprise, since both are old pals and fully paid-up members of the tycoon-bureaucrat mutual adoration society that serves as Hong Kong’s smug, overpaid and inept ruling establishment these days.

What is a bit odd is the sheer effusiveness of Yam’s praise for Tang, including such eyebrow-raising terms as “man of vision, especially global vision,” “a leader who can fight for, protect and enrich public interest” and “a helmsman to lead us through turbulence” and more. This goes beyond respect, politeness, wenming, or whatever into the realm of fantasy.

The backdrop here is Beijing’s continued silence on who will get the job. It’s still November, so there’s no real rush, but even so – people would appreciate a hint. Yam is one of the higher-profile of the relatively few public figures who have come out so far for either Henry or his rival CY Leung. He’s not the sort of intimate that Beijing would use as its representative on Earth to indicate which way the wind will blow and the bamboo bend. The best way to explain it is to use an ancient Chinese word that can’t be translated into immature and feeble English meaning ‘someone who has little to lose by publicly stating a bold and early, and totally predictable, preference, and who might just encourage an emergence of like-minded opinion as a result’.

I am relieved to declare the weekend open.


Click to hear the Easybeats’ ‘Friday on My Mind’!

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21 Responses to Headline unavailable due to inadequacy of English language

  1. Tam may be part of planet lychee but I don’t think he’s on it.Helmsmen don’t lead through turbulence, they steer through storms. Turbulence happens up there , in the clouds. Funnily enough, where most of our clueless ruling class happen to dwell.

  2. Yam, bloody spell check…..

  3. Tiu Fu Fong says:

    Chinese has no real word for empathy, although neither did the English until they took it from the Germans in the early 1900s, who in turn took it from the Greeks in the mid-19th century.

    What Mr Pattberg should have focused on is the different connotations that translatable words have. For example, telling the truth is generally viewed as positive in the West (eg when you chop down your dad’s favourite apple tree), albeit somewhat inconvenient in practice. On the other hand, in Chinese, the idea of a person who tells the truth is viewed as a fool at best.

  4. maugrim says:

    I’m not sure there’s a chinese character for Love either. To anyone who has viewed Mainland queing practices, which are becomming a more common sight in HK, i’d like to know what character describes that. Shit, I’m turning into Raymonde M Sacklyn. Help.

  5. Noah Webster says:

    No word for “sorry” or “good-bye”, either.

  6. Chris Maden says:

    Er… Google translate offers 同理心 for empathy, which I think I broadly agree with – although I agree with Tiu Fu Fong that the term is more of a technical psycholgical one than one in everyday use (although nor is “empathy” widely used in Englah day-to-day speach). Love is 愛. although this is closer to the Greek agape / brotherly love / partiotic love than to the Western idea of romantic love. Oddly, the Japanese use of the same character does come closer to the Western usage.

    But I agree that Pattberg is writing bollocks. 民主 is an exact translation into Chinese of the Greek word “democracy.” The two Chinese characters that have been around since Confucius, but only in this combination since the mid-18th century. Does that mean Chinese are constitutionally incapable of understanding democracy? June 4 and a host of other incidents in China’s recent past say otherwise. Just like blue / green, the concepts are there even if the words are not.

  7. Chris Maden says:

    Sorry – dui m’jue or ying choh for apologize. Bye bye – agreed. Joi gin.

  8. Real Tax Payer says:

    On other matters…….. there’s a spat in the SCMP between a spirited Laisee ( Howard Winn ) and the Greens on the one hand and a feeble lame-duck EPD on the other side

    And Laisee also takes a pot shot at yes-man Lam for not caring about govt records ( which is maybe because he doesn;t care about anyhing except to be Don the Lame Duck’s lap dog)

    Help………… I’m writing as viciously as that awful idiot columnist in the China Daily who should have been better employed working for Kim Jong Il as his press relations office

    Time for the weekend

  9. Mary Hinge says:


  10. Real Tax Payer says:

    @ Noah Webster

    You are wrong my learned friend. The correct Chinese words are, respectively ” Sorree- la” and ” By -By-a “

  11. Kath says:

    Here’s one I love, try telling someone they are quite a character, it means you are interesting in English, in Chinese, if u are a woman, it means shut up u are acting inappropriate or in both sex, it can mean u are unattractive that’s why we are saying u have character

  12. PK says:

    I constantly hear HK people peppering their Cantonese with English technical terms, business terms and other terms of art, even in conversations amongst themselves. That seems to suggest there’s no Canto equivalent for those words, although maybe Putonghua would do better.

    The best part about all this is that it allows the company gweilo to throw in the occasional off-the-cuff, marginally relevant remark, drawing the usual astonished reactions (waaah you understand Chinese!). Even better than chopstick skills ar.

  13. maugrim says:

    PK then you tell them you understand more than they think. Watch their faces. People then joke that they will need to use Putonghua in future lol.

  14. Walter De Havilland says:

    I suppose all languages are evolving by absorbing words from other languages. The word Shroff is a example. I’m told it has an Indian origin and it spread into colonial Hong Kong with the Brits. Certainly it only travelled eastward, as I don’t see it being used in the UK. Interesting stuff to mull over.

  15. Andrea says:

    Regarding to “wenming” and “civilzation”, Pattberg was only partly right.

    “wenming” as a noun CAN be translated into “civilization”. but the Chinese word may only be endowed with that meaning after 18th century — I’m not sure about the etymology but it CAN mean that.

    What Pattberg referred to, namely the meaning of “a high level of ethics and gentleness of a people”, I supposed he meant “wenming” as an adjective. In this regard, the word can be translated to “civilized” though I’m not sure if the translation is 100% accurate.

  16. Andrea says:

    Nonetheless, and seriously, there is one English word that I cannot find an accurate Chinese translation, which is “appreciate”.

    I can teach a Chinese what “I appreciate your help” directly means. There is also identical expression under the same context of conversation in Chinese, which, if directly translated into English, should be “Thank you (so much) for your help.”

    But as far as I understand, there is nuance between “I appreciate your help” and “thank you for your help”.


  17. Andrea says:

    btw Henry’s picture looks sooo hilarious…! XD

  18. Morgan ( capital M, small organ) says:

    you must be new here.

  19. PropertyDeveloper says:

    The problem, as I see it, is that English is so dominant worldwide, and that it’s often a simplified register, only a few thousand words, not rooted in any particular culture: the danger is when it displaces other voices and ways of thinking. Non-bilinguals frequently underestimate the extent to which different places have a different worldview.

    This vocabulary thing is incidental: what matters is when, for instance, written Chinese in HK is considered structurally inadequate elsewhere, Mexicans can’t publish in Madrid or gobbledygook like “quantitative easing” pops up everywhere.

    The language of England was, long ago, submerged by foreign invaders, who made their language the official one — in fact it happened twice — and there are still lots of people who claim that we should go back to earlier, “native”, forms.

  20. Kosimjoni says:

    You wrote: “But in fact, English has a precise phrase for each, namely ‘yin and yang’, ‘kung-fu’ and ‘fengshui’.”

    What you say it correct, so you actually support Pattberg’s argument. Because those words were adopted from the Chinese into English, simply because English did not have those concepts before. Now Mr Pattberg says that shengren is another unique candidate to enter the English vocabulary. I say why not.

    I don’t think Eastern spiritual terminology is all ‘baloney’. Pattberg says the vocabularies of the world’s languages add up. Of course, no one can learn all languages of the world, so we must translate at some point. But when, for example, James Legge in his Analects translates ‘zi’ as ‘philosopher’, we must draw the line and say: wait a minute, that translation is too far off the mark.

    I must admit that I knew Confucius since my highschool years but I had never heard (or wasn’t consciously doubting the English version) about shengren before. Now I looked it up, and it is crazy that it seems only to appear in Pattberg’s books and articles and nowhere else. If he is right, then this article should be published in Science , not in some ideological media (I think that was your main ideological concern in your blog). But that’s just my opinion. Anyways, thanks to biglychee.com and good luck to your cause!

  21. Big Al says:

    Better late than never. The words of one language are not necessarily translatable, verbatim, but the concepts and the meaning are, albeit using different words. Understanding is all about communicating meaning. Idioms, for example, make no sense when translated verbatim, but different idioms can convey the same meaning.

    What no-one has touched on yet is “newspeak”, the method by which the rulers in George Orwell’s 1984 controlled thought.

    We generally think in words. If there are no words for certain ideas or actions then thoughts about those ideas or actions can never be vocalised and remain only an abstract “feeling” that cannot be communicated or shared.

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