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Car Trouble, the Tiger Bell, and Chinese Translation into English

November 13, 2014

The White House pushed very hard for President Xi Jinping to take questions during his news conference with President Obama at the end of their two days of meetings Wednesday. It did not want a repeat of the stilted, scripted encounter Mr. Obama had with Mr. Xi’s predecessor, Hu Jintao, in 2009 on his first trip to China as president.

What the White House got was Xi Jinping, Unplugged, and that may have been more than it bargained for…..

The Chinese leader reached for an unexpected metaphor to describe the predicament of The Times and other foreign news organizations, saying they were suffering the equivalent of car trouble. “When a car breaks down on the road,” he said through an interpreter, “perhaps we need to get off the car and see where the problem lies.”

“The Chinese say, ‘let he who tied the bell on the tiger take it off,’ ” Mr. Xi added, in a somewhat enigmatic phrase that was not immediately translated into English. It is normally interpreted as “the party which has created the problem should be the one to help resolve it.”

— Mark Lander, “Fruitful Visit by Obama Ends With a Lecture From Xi.” New York Times (12 Nov 2014)

As New York Times reporter Lander and his editor use English metaphors “Fruitful” and “Unplugged,” they also make their “objective” report personal (and perhaps very very subjective):

Lander writes how, at the recent news conference in Beijing, “Mr. Xi seemed to ignore two questions from a reporter for The New York Times — [1] about whether China feared that the Obama administration’s pivot to Asia represented a threat to China, and [2] whether China would ease its refusal to issue visas to foreign correspondents in light of a broader visa agreement with the United States.”

“White House officials said” — Lander reports further — that “Mr. Obama had called on The [New York] Times reporter to make a point.”

The backdrop to the two at-first ignored questions for the Chinese president asked at the urging of the American president is this, Lander notes:

“Several of the newspaper’s China correspondents had their visas applications denied by the government, an issue Mr. Obama raised with Mr. Xi in one of their meetings.”

President Xi’s “circled back” eventual response to this is the “car trouble” and the “tiger bell” metaphors. We read in English from Lander how the interpreter translated and then hesitated to translate the Chinese into English.

So do we readers of The New York Times in English get this right? We do infer that there’s an indirectness on the part of both President Xi and his interpreter in the issue of allowing direct news coverage of China especially by reporters like Lander. But do we understand the motivations and the means of the interpreter’s translations (and does Lander get that right)?

I recall how Tony Barnstone and Chou Ping describe English translations of Chinese poetry in The Anchor Book of Chinese Poetry: From Ancient to Contemporary, The Full 3000-Year Tradition:

The Chinese poem [translated] in [American] English is like a stolen car sent to a “chop shop” to be stripped, disassembled, fitted with other parts, and presented to the consumer public with a new coat of paint. But despite its glossy American exterior, it’s a Chinese engine that makes this vehicle run, and fragments of the poem’s old identity can be glimpsed in its lines, the purr of its engine, the serial number, which we may still be able to read…. [We do well] to discuss ways … found of negotiating between Chinese and English-language poetic paradigms, and to touch on the aspects of English that have proved compatible with the Chinese poem, which has been a part of Western poetic traffic since the early years of modernism.

The use of the metaphor of the car, certainly an invention during the days of modernism, is just fascinating. But why “stolen” and why the violently altering “chop shop” metaphors?

And we remember how Language Log blogger and linguist Victor Mair notes a use of the English letter Q as a loan into Chinese, even for a car:

Another usage for QQ on Mainland China is as the name for a mini car produced by Chery Automobile (Qirui 奇瑞), a Chinese company.  To avoid confusion with the internet QQ, it is often referred to as Chery QQ (奇瑞QQ).  Unveiled in 2003, Chery QQ was so successful that it became the best-selling mini-car in 2005-2007.  It is often thought of as a car for ladies.  Since it is the cheapest car in many foreign markets, including the EU, its sales have skyrocketed. (A photo of the Chery QQ ishere.)

And so now let’s get back to President Xi’s metaphors, his interpreter’s translation of them into English, and reporter Lander’s English language reporting of them as a guest in China. It may be even more useful for us to read Lydia He Liu’s works on the historical context. We might start with Tokens of Exchange: The Problem of Translation in Global Circulations (Post-Contemporary Interventions) and Translingual Practice: Literature, National Culture, and Translated Modernity-China, 1900-1937.

In the former, she considers what many of us in English limit as “translation” from a more Chinese perspective:

As I [Lydia H. Liu] have argued elsewhere, one does not translate between equivalents; rather, one creates tropes of equivalence in the middle zone of translation between the host and guest languages. This middle zone of hypothetical equivalence, which is occupied by neologistic imagination, becomes the very ground for change.

In the latter, she elaborates:

I am interested in theoretical problems that lead up to an investigation of the condition of translation and of discursive practices that ensue from initial interlingual contacts between languages. Broadly defined, the study of translingual practice examines the process by which new words, meanings, discourses, and modes of representation arise, circulate, and acquire legitimacy within the host language due to, or in spite of, the latter’s contact/collision with the guest language. Meanings, therefore, are not so much “transformed” when concepts pass from the guest language to the host language as invented within the local environment of the latter. In that sense, translation is no longer a neutral event untouched by the contending interests of political and ideological struggles. Instead, it becomes the very site of such struggles where the guest language is forced to encounter the host language, where the irreducible differences between them are fought out, authorities invoked or challenged, ambiguities dissolved or created, and so forth, until new words and meaning emerge in the host language itself. I hope the notion of translingual practice will eventually lead to a theoretical vocabulary that helps account for the process of adaptation, translation, introduction, and domestication of words, categories, discourses, and modes of representation from one language to another and, furthermore, helps explain the modes of transmission, manipulation, deployment, and domination within the power structure of the host language.


If it is always true that the translator or some other agent in the host language always initiates the linguistic transaction by inviting, selecting, combining, and reinventing words and texts from the guest language and, moreover, if the needs of the translator and his/her audience together determine and negotiate the meaning (i.e., usefulness) of the text taken from the guest language, then the terms traditional theorists of translation use to designate the languages involved in translation, such as “source” and “target/receptor,” are not only inappropriate but misleading. The idea of source language often relies on concepts of authenticity, origin, influence, and so on, and has the disadvantage of re-introducing the age-old problematic of translatability/un translatability in the discussion. On the other hand, the notion of target language implies a teleological goal, a distance to be crossed in order to reach the plentitude of meaning; it thus misrepresents the ways in which the trope of equivalence is conceived in the host language, relegating its agency to secondary importance. Instead of continuing to subscribe to such metaphysical concerns perpetuated by the naming of a source and a target, I adopt the notions “host language” and “guest language” . . . (. . . radically alter[ing] the relationship between the original and translation), which should allow me to place more emphasis on the host language than it has heretofore received.

Notice how Liu changes the Western, modernist notion of translation to more of a social exchange, which implies one is the host, the other the guest. Why should she want change in general that sounds less like chopping up the body of a car and more like hospitality and mutual respect? More particularly, why should she want more emphasis on the “host” by those who are more clearly the guests?

If we answer with merely nationalistic and modernistic answers, then we may miss Liu’s astute points. In the struggle over free press and over foreign passes into China by her guests, for Liu, as somebody who is Chinese, as a person who is a woman, there is more to consider. This is evidenced by her saying things like this: “Is there a female tradition in modern Chinese literature? By asking this question, I intend to bring to critical attention a number of interesting claims put forth by women.” And she goes on to say more here.

My only point for this blogpost is simply that there is much to the translational exchanges between China and the former empires of Europe and between China and the present super power of the USA. Car trouble and the tiger’s bell may need a little more attention.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. November 13, 2014 12:18 pm

    Here’s a good follow-up op-ed piece in the NYTs by Patrick J. Lyons:

  2. Suzanne McCarthy permalink
    November 15, 2014 1:34 am

    Thanks for you thoughtful work on translation.


  1. Translingual Practice, Evangelization, and Ecumenism | BLT

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