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Lost in Translation: The importance of words in the Sino-Australian diplomatic space

· Emily Clifford,Translation,Sino-Australian,Analysis

For many years, linguistic translation in political spaces has remained a largely unexplored field. However, translation is a significant act in foreign relations because subtle language choices can be used to convey and hide meaning. Metaphors, as well as similes and analogies, have become a popular choice in translating political discourse and have a powerful impact in communicating nuanced and complex messages.

Maintaining the established but fragile status quo with China is one of the most important issues on Australia’s political agenda. With the Federal election looming and Australian Foreign Affairs Minister Julie Bishop indicating she will not run in the next election, developing bilateral co-operation despite heightened political sensitivities has become paramount. A key challenge not often identified in managing complex issues with China such as the South China Sea, ongoing China-Taiwan debate, the banning of Huawei from Australia’s 5G network and claims that the ABC had violated China’s laws and damaged ‘national pride’, is the problematic nature of translation.

When Bishop met with Wang Yi at the G20 conference in Argentina last year, she described the meeting as ‘very warm, very constructive’. Global media outlets reported the encounter as ‘less positive’ due to the perceived anti-China rhetoric within the Australian Federal Government (in relation to the controversial ‘preventing foreign interference’ legislation passed) at the close of 2017. Of particular interest is the variations in translation of comments made by Wang with respect to the meeting which loosely translate to Wang allegedly telling Bishop “take off the tinted glasses [and] see China's development from a positive perspective". Numerous Australian media outlets translated Wang’s words to mean ‘tinted glasses’ or ‘tinted glass’, other reports described it as meaning ‘tainted glass’. In addition, ‘take off the tinted glasses’ has widely been described as ‘Chinese diplomatic shorthand for what it sees as Western bias’ or as referring to ‘foreigners [who are] prejudice against China’.

As there was no official transcript of the comments, Western media sources had to rely on translating from Chinese press coverage, as reported in China’s official news outlet Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the People’s Republic of China, directly to English. The characters used in Chinese press more closely translate to ‘coloured glasses’ (有色眼镜) rather than tinted glass. The first two characters (有色) mean ‘coloured’ and the last two refer to spectacles ( 眼镜) as opposed to ‘tinted’ (色彩) and ‘glass’ (玻璃 ). Translating from Mandarin into English is particularly problematic as phrases can have multiple meanings depending on the context. Each character must be carefully considered and interpreted, rather than cutting and pasting the terms into a translation application in full sentences. Further, some expressions are influenced by specific historical developments and can be misconstrued in translation with their authentic significance lost. Wang’s comments were conveyed in Chinese media to encourage Australia to get rid of it’s traditional (anti-China) thinking in order to cultivate their relationship rather than ‘recoil’ it.

The potential for misunderstanding is compounded by the fact that unlike English, Chinese (Mandarin) is a tonal language where the pitch is integrated with the pronunciation of the word being used. The Chinese language often features indirectness and non-expressive words to project humility and to show awareness and sensitivity to social power. As a culture, China is collectively oriented and values harmony, tending to avoid direct confrontation.

Although subtle, the importance of words in political spaces requires greater focus on translating contextually and within cultural frameworks. The Bishop-Wang meeting coverage demonstrates how common mistranslation by the media is in global affairs. As we move closer to the next election and a potential change of government, a renewed focus on Australia’s bilateral relationship with China will be required alongside more accurate depictions of what each country is communicating to one another. The challenge lies in media coverage conveying subtle cultural meaning despite the complexity and nuance of language.

Emily Clifford is a Policy Analyst at FPL Advisory.

FPL Advisory is a team of specialists resolving risks and creating opportunities with respect to government. We work with public sector and corporate clients to execute strategies for owning and managing change.