Lost in Translation

October 1, 2012

I am not a professional translator, but because I am bilingual I often have opportunities to translate.  In fact, for my job I translate our school newsletter every week to ensure both our Chinese and English readers can comprehend the information.  A rule I abide by in my translating work is to make sure I translate the meaning, and not simply word for word.  The reason google translate fails so often is because the mechanics are not yet sophisticated enough to decipher the meaning behind the words – it can only rigidly substitute words with a close equivalent.

Language is more than strings of an alphabet (or strokes in a character, as the case may be in Chinese).  Language is merely a vessel for meaning.  In order to translate with integrity, one must transfer the concepts, worldview, values and history from one cultural framework to the other.  As you can imagine, this is a momentous task, and thus much of the meaning merely transfers superficially or are simply “lost in translation.”  This is why in order to fully appreciate a work of literature, you must read it in its original language.    
I often encounter words in English I can’t translate to Chinese and vice versa.  For example, the word “fun” is inexplicably difficult to translate.  It feels quite defeating to be stumped by such a short word!  In Chinese, one sometimes translates “有趣的“, or “好玩的“, both of which connotes childish playfulness.  And yet, in American culture you use the word fun to describe a myriad of activities for grown-ups.  “The music was really fun at the wedding!” or “What do you do for fun on the weekends?” The value American culture places on entertainment and “having fun” just does not translate into Chinese culture, where fun is reserved for children only.  I hate to break it to my foreigner friends, but sometimes what you think are fun, whimsical behaviour are viewed as ridiculous childishness precisely because of this cultural disconnect.
In recent years, the value of bilingualism (or multi-lingualism) is being praised for its many benefits.  The most important of which is the way our worldview expands as we confront the limitations of a monolingual worldview.  I can’t help but marvel at the incredible diversity of ways life can be done because I am offered two windows through which to view our world.  As a Christian, it reminds me of how big our God is, and how other cultures reveal more ways to be faithful as a follower of Jesus.  
An example of a Chinese word which does not find an easy equivalent in English is the word “陪“ (pei, pronounced “pay”).  Chinese people often say, “wo pei ni *insert activity*”.  It means, I’ll accompany you “on your walk home”, or “to the movies”.  It can also be used in a more longer term perspective, so a husband might vow to “pei” his wife forever.  However, the word “accompany” or “do something with” does not fully convey the Chinese value of companionship and togetherness.  Americans find accompanying as something you do along-side someone, and it is viewed as either a formal escort, like children who need chaperoning, or two individuals enjoying an activity together.  The former interpretation implies a weakness in one party that needs to be addressed by the one accompanying.  The latter implies two parties in an unspoken contractual agreement to do something together so long as the activity is beneficial to themselves.  Neither one of these definitions accurately capture the essence of “陪“, which assumes an interdependent relationship.  When a Chinese person says, “wo pei ni” or “ni pei wo” (I accompany you, or you accompany me), the implied understanding is a mutual need for each other.  This is a spirit which is easily dismissed in American culture where value is found in independence, and needing company is a sign of weakness.  
I quickly discovered this cultural difference in my encounters with American friends and husband.  I realised if I asked someone to “pei” me, it was a sign of weakness.  Why on earth would I need someone to accompany to the grocery store, something I can easily do by myself?  If I feared the dark and needed someone to “pei” me to assuage my fears, I should just get over it.  To better function in the American cultural context, I learned to become independent.  I learned to be self sufficient, and to tuck the vocabulary of “pei” away for a while.  
Yet in my life journey of interweaving cultural paths, I am rediscovering the beauty of this Chinese value.  I am a firm believer in the missiological concept that God is already at work in every culture, and I believe he placed this gem of truth inside the Chinese language to reveal a foundational element of the Gospel.  
Because the astounding mystery of the Gospel is this:  God, the Creator of all things, came to us in the Person of Jesus, the Great I Am clothed in flesh and blood.  Emmanuel, God with us.  
The Promise is not that everything will be okay in life, but that He will never leave us nor forsake us.  
Though I walk through the darkest valley, I shall fear no evil, for You are with me.  
The truth of the Gospel is God “pei” us through this battle of life.  And He asks us to “pei” each other.  No more walls of hostility, no more judgment.  No more lies of individual strength, no more isolation.  Our fears are meant to be overcome in community, not on our own.  Our needing others is a sign of strength, not weakness.  We become heroes in our life stories not because of our own resilience and might, but because of our utter reliance on each other.  
So dear American readers, the next time your Chinese friend asks you to “pei” them, say yes.  Not as a chaperone or even as a partner.  Pei them and you might discover you need them as much as they needed you.