Translating 'Commodities Boom' into Chinese
20 July 2008
Recently I had to translate a passage into Chinese containing the word 'commodities boom'. The problem here is 'commodities', one of those annoying words that dictionaries handle rather poorly. 'Commodities' has quite specific nuances that are often entirely missing from dictionary equivalents. To see my recommendation for the best term, go to the bottom. To see how I got there, read on.
We'll start with the English meaning as found in my old Websters (1980s vintage). The age of the dictionary is not an issue because that is often where the problem lies. Most English-Chinese dictionaries base their definitions on quite old usages.
The sense under discussion is:
An economic good as:
a. a product of agriculture or mining
b. an article of commerce esp. when delivered for shipment (commodities futures).
In the expression 'commodities boom', the meaning is quite clearly 'agricultural or mining product'. The boom in commodities in recent years has been caused by huge demand in China for products like coal and iron ore.
The distinguishing characteristics of agricultural and mining products are:
(1) They are produced and traded in very large quantities and sell at relatively low unit prices (usually expressed in 'dollars per tonne'),
(2) Despite differences in quality, they are quite generic in nature. They are totally subject to the rigours of the market and highly sensitive to fluctuations in supply and demand. They can be substituted relatively easily with product from another source. In this they are rather different from, say, motor cars or electronics.
(3) They are generally staple products. Rough diamonds, for example, are a mining product, but since they are traded in quite small quantities and are not staple products, one would only with hesitation refer to them as 'commodities'.
One might add that it is the nightmare of every producer to have his product converted into a 'commodity'. For instance, a producer who sells high-quality wine by the bottle stands to make much more profit than a low-quality producer whose wine becomes a 'commodity', sold in bulk, by the gallon, as raw material for another bottler. 'Commodification' thus refers to the trend for a good or service to be sold as a homogeneous product, with large volumes, low margins, and little brand differentiation.
English-Chinese dictionaries perform quite poorly in reflecting these nuances. These are the entries from the online Iciba:
［常用复］日用品； 商品； 农［矿］产品； 有用的东西
[cháng yòng fù] rìyòngpǐn; shāngpǐn; nóng [kuàng] chǎnpǐn; yǒu yòng de dōngxi
[often plural] 'daily use article; product; agricultural [mining] product; useful item'.
huòwù, shāngpǐn, wùpǐn
1 and 2: 'goods, commodity, merchandise', 3: 'article, goods, product'.
nóngchǎnpǐn, kuàngchǎnpǐn, chūkǒu shāngpǐn
'agricultural products, mineral products, export goods'.
An example sentence for this is: "Air conditioners are one of the many commodities that Japan sells abroad."
'daily use goods'.
The problem is that many of the definitions fail to completely capture the nuances that have developed around the word 'commodity', especially in the context of 'commodities boom'. The generic Chinese words given -- 商品，货物 -- mean nothing more than 'goods, merchandise, product'. They cover everything from air conditioners to coffee beans to bolts of cloth. As we have seen, a commodity is very different in its connotations from 'merchandise'. The Chinese term that we need should be one that refers mainly to agricultural or mining products.
Unfortunately, translating 'commodities boom' as 农产品、矿产品热潮 nóng chǎnpǐn, kuàngchǎnpǐn rècháo 'boom in agricultural and mining products', while reasonably accurate, is rather too ungainly to be used constantly. We need a more compact, succinct expression that sums up the meaning of 'commodities' boom in an easy-to-grasp manner. Since dictionaries don't help very much, the next step is a search of the Internet.
1. One expression that comes up (see here) is 初级产品热潮 chūjí chǎnpǐn rècháo 'primary products boom'.
Literally meaning 'initial grade / beginning level products', 初级产品 chūjí chǎnpǐn is the normal Chinese term for 'primary product'. As such it is a reasonable catch-all for agricultural and mining products, although it lacks precision since it includes forestry and fisheries products as well. It also fails to properly express the nuance that commodities are high-volume products which have the nature of staples.
2. Another site uses 大宗商品 dàzōng shāngpǐn. This literally means 'large volume, large quantity goods' and refers to 'staple products'. This term provides a relatively good fit to 'commodity' and in this context, at least, is quite suitable to refer to the kind of product covered by the term 'commodities boom'. The same term is used in an article on Mongolian mineral resources in the 7 July 2008 edition of 环球时报 (Global Times) . However, it historically does appear to refer to somewhat different products from iron ore or coke. One dictionary makes it clear that 'tea' is a good example of a 大宗商品 dàzōng shāngpǐn.
Of the two words, 初级产品 chūjí chǎnpǐn and 大宗商品 dàzōng shāngpǐn, it appears that 大宗商品 dàzōng shāngpǐn 'staple product' is a good standard translation for 'commodities'.