Spicks & Specks

The Perils of Translating Via a Third Language

Earliest version was 2003 (undated)

The conference on 'International Cooperation for Tourism Development Under a New Paradigm - Revitalizing Asian Tourism' held in Hong Kong on 14-15 July 2003 was a great success according to all who attended. The conference was organised by the Boao Forum for Asia and the World Tourism Organisation, under the auspices of the government of Hong Kong.

Hong Kong reportedly spent an enormous amount on the conference, which was just a small part of a program to revive tourism following SARS. The venue was the magnificent Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre jutting into and overlooking the harbour at Wan Chai. The organisation was excellent and the dinner thrown by the Hong Kong government, in particular, was a grand affair which could not be faulted in any way.

More the pity that the conference was marred by incredibly poor interpreting. The organisers had arranged for interpreting into English, Chinese, Cantonese, Japanese, and Russian. I can't speak for the Cantonese or the Russian, but the Japanese interpreting was absolutely appalling. A major speech by former New Zealand Prime Minister Jenny Shipley was so badly mangled that two-thirds of the content was omitted in the Japanese interpreting, leaving the Japanese delegation completely nonplussed as to its meaning.

The English translation of a speech delivered in Japanese by former Japanese Transport Minister Toshihiro Nikai was read out verbatim from a translated handout, although I was told that the speech as delivered contained last-minute changes not included in the handout.

To give an idea of the rather idiosyncratic interpreting at this conference, take these four examples that I noticed, mostly from the speech by the vice president of the Canadian Tourism Commission, Thomas Penney.

What the English said The Japanese translation What the Japanese translation actually meant
Tourism Ministers
kankō buchō
'heads of tourism departments/sections'
6 million dollars
roppyaku man gen
'6 million yuan'
gyōsei kankei no shokuin
'staff for administrative matters'

The reason for these peculiar errors lies in the interpreting arrangements. Translation between Japanese and English was exclusively via Chinese. In other words, when a speech was given in English, a Chinese interpreter first translated it into Chinese, and it was then translated into Japanese by a different Chinese interpreter! Let us look at these mistakes more closely.

Tourism Minister

The correct translations of English 'tourism minister' are as follows:

English Chinese Japanese
Tourism minister
Guānguāng bùzhǎng

Kankō daijin

What led to the incorrect version we saw above?

The interpreters have translated the English word 'minister' into the Chinese equivalent bùzhǎng. The problem lies in a peculiar phenomenon of Sino-Japanese linguistics. The Chinese word bùzhǎng means 'government minister'. The Japanese word buchō, written with the same characters, means 'director of a department or section (within a ministry or organisation)', a much humbler rank. Strictly speaking, the Japanese equivalent to the Chinese bùzhǎng is daijin. However, Chinese characters tend to be regarded as sacrosanct -- they cannot be changed or modified without good reason. So instead of calling Chinese government ministers daijin, which is what they really are, Japanese speakers, especially those who have a lot to do with China, generally use the Chinese term without change and call them buchō. Although a potential cause of confusion, this usage is accepted and understood by Japanese who have dealings with China1.

It is, however, a peculiarity to be found only in a Sino-Japanese context. Under no circumstances should it be extended to people of ministerial rank from other countries. When speaking of the Tourism Minister of Vanuatu, for instance, the correct Japanese term is daijin, not the Sino-Japanese term buchō, which demotes the Minister to the head of a mere section within his own ministry. This was the mistake committed by these interpreters from Beijing, who obviously had insufficient knowledge or experience to outfit them for anything but strictly bilateral Sino-Japanese interpreting.


Canadian dollars

The correct equivalents are as follows:

English Chinese Japanese
Canadian dollars
Jiānádà yuán

Kanada doru

How did the interpreters manage to transform 'Canadian dollars' into 'yuan'? The problem here is the naming of currencies. For instance, look at the following currency names in English, Chinese, and Japanese:

English Chinese Japanese
dollar (US) ,
Měi-yuán, Měi-jīn

Canadian dollar
Jiānádà yuán

Kanada doru
Hong Kong dollar

Honkon doru
Singapore dollar
Xīnjiāpō yuán

Shingapōru doru
Australian dollar
Aòdàlìyà yuán

ōsutoraria doru
New Zealand dollar
Xīnxīlán yuán

Nyūjiirando doru
yuan (RMB) ,
Rénmínbì, yuán
Jinmingen, gen
pound sterling

Igirisu pondo
Korean won

Kankoku uon
Japanese yen

Nihon en

English has specific names for currencies, which are largely followed by the Japanese. Chinese does to some extent, too. However, more than is even apparent from this list, Chinese terms like yuán and are generic names used for almost any kind of currency. Differentiation is achieved by adding the country name.

When the Canadian speaker mentioned 'dollars', the Chinese interpreters presumably translated it as Jiānádà yuán. The Sino-Japanese interpreters, unused to contexts other than Japanese yen or Renminbi yuan, must then have translated yuán as gen, a term used in Japanese exclusively for the Chinese Renminbi! The correct translation in the circumstances was Kanada doru.



Some general translations of English 'tourism' / 'sightseeing' are as follows:

English Chinese Japanese
Tourism lǚxíng
guān guāng
kankō ryokō
'sightseeing travel'

A correct Japanese translation would use only the words in the right-hand column. However, the Chinese translators constantly used the word ryoyū in Japanese. The problem is that the word ryoyū does not exist in Japanese.

What we have here is a case of contamination. The Chinese word lǚyóu is an abbreviation of lǚxíng yóulǎn ('travel' + 'sightseeing'). In Japanese, would be read ryoyū. However, ryoyū is encountered in Japanese only when rendering the names of the Chinese tourism bureaus, lǚyóu-jú (ryoyū kyoku). To inject this purely Chinese word into a general Japanese translation is jarring and unprofessional. Many Japanese will understand it, but it will sound as though someone is guessing at a Japanese word but getting it wrong.



The exact path leading to this mistranslation is not completely clear as I did not hear the Chinese translation at this point. The main standard Chinese translations for CEO are shown below. Japanese uses the English term 'CEO':

English Chinese Japanese
shǒuxí zhíxíngguān
'chief implementing/executing officer'

xíngzhèng zǒngcái (Hong Kong)
'administrative president'

zhíxíng-zhǎng (Taiwan)
'implementing/executing chief'

Other Chinese terms may also be found: xíngzhèng zǒngcái, xíngzhèng zhíxíng zǒngcái, shǒuxí zhíxíngzhǎng, and xíngzhèng shǒuxí zhíxíngguān. The word for 'executive' is particularly difficult to translate into Chinese, being often rendered as xíngzhèng (administrative) or zhíxíng (implementing). (That is why the prestige 'Executive floors' in many hotels become 'Administrative floors' in Chinese!)

In this case it is reasonable to assume that the Chinese interpreters translated CEO into something involving xíngzhèng ('administration'). When literally translated into Japanese, the CEO was dramatically transformed into a 'staff member for administrative matters'! Had the translation been direct from English to Japanese, this mistake would not have occurred -- 'CEO' would have remained 'CEO', a position well understood by the Japanese without being translated.

In these cases, a major sticking point is Chinese characters, which interfere in subtle and not-so-subtle ways with the mechanics of translation. A major fault of Chinese-Japanese interpreters is the habit of faithfully transferring characters from one language to the other rather than translating the actual meaning, resulting in a strange sinified Japanese. Many of these hybridised forms have become institutionalised in translation and interpreting circles, to the extent that translators seem unaware that they are even using strange Japanese2.

Another related problem is that many Chinese interpreters into Japanese are extremely weak in English, a language which has contributed such a large part of the modern Japanese vocabulary. This means that, when confronted with the Chinese translation of 'CEO', for instance, most Chinese translators are unable to come up with the correct English form, substituting outlandish direct translations instead.

What is mystifying in this particular case is why such inappropriate interpreting arrangements were made. Japan has a large pool of top-notch English-Japanese interpreters who could have sailed through the speeches and panel discussions with ease. But rather than hiring such interpreters the organisers preferred to bring Chinese-Japanese interpreters from Beijing. One can only speculate why, but two factors spring to mind:

1. The high cost of Japanese interpreters, whose fees start at JPY 80,000 (pushing US$700) a day. If this is the case, the organisers were indulging in false economy. The cost of providing decent interpreting would have been totally insignificant against the cost of the conference as a whole. For a few thousand extra dollars, the conference would have been considerably more worthwhile for some of its important participants. (One other possibility, which is depressingly likely to be true in China, is that the organisers felt that there was no need to make 'special arrangments' for the Japanese).

2. The Boao Forum's rather peculiar adoption of two official languages, English and Chinese. Assumedly, this is for practical administrative reasons, namely, the fact that the Boao Forum for Asia is effectively based in Beijing (and not Boao as it pretends to be). There is no other reason for having Chinese as an official language when English, not Chinese, is the only common language shared throughout the area covered by the Boao Forum.

The question of 'official languages' is important for interpreting. In interpreting among a large number of languages, one language must be chosen as a 'pivot'3; otherwise interpreters must be found for each and every set of languages, from English-Chinese, Chinese-Japanese, right down to Cantonese-Russian. The problem is the choice of pivot. Most speeches at the Hong Kong conference were in English, not Chinese. China (for some reason) sent a far less powerful delegation than Japan. It would therefore have made sense to use English as the sole pivot. The choice of Chinese was presumably based on the proud logic that, being one of the official languages, Chinese was just as valid a pivot as English! There is, indeed, a detectable tendency for the Forum staff to see the Boao Forum as 'belonging' to China.

The reality is probably somewhat more complicated than this (as are many things in China) but the result of this decision was unfortunately not befitting an international conference of this size and quality. One can only hope that in future the Boao Forum for Asia will transcend the limitations of its Beijing location and secure interpreting services of an international standard.

1. In general, Chinese-character using countries adopt the usage of the country in question. Thus, Chinese speakers quickly and easily adopt Japanese terminology when talking about Japan. This phenomenon can be seen in many areas, but a few examples from the political arena will give an idea.

Word Country Chinese name Japanese name Note
Ministry / Department China bu Japan follows Chinese usage
Japan shěng   shō China follows Japanese usage
UK, Australia, etc. shō Both Japan and China follow their own normal domestic usage
Foreign Ministry China wài-jiāo-bù  gaikō-bu Japan follows Chinese usage
Japan wài-wù-shěng gaimu-shō China follows Japanese usage
UK, Australia, etc. wài-jiāo-bù gaimu-shō Both Japan and China follow their own normal domestic usage
President US () zǒng-tǒng daitōryō Both Japan and China follow their own domestic usage
Taiwan () zǒng-tǒng sōtō Japan follows Chinese usage

Note that the North Korean Foreign Ministry is known as the in that country and it is thus known as the wàiwùshěng in Chinese. However, exceptions are not uncommon, e.g., the Chinese Foreign Ministry is often referred to as the Chinese gaimu-shō (not gaikǒ-bu) in Japanese.


2. Perhaps the most egregious example of this is the word for 'cooperation'. In normal Japanese this is kyōryoku. However, the strange dialect of Sino-Japanese interpreters uses the word gassaku (as in Nitchū gassaku 'Sino-Japanese cooperation'). This is based on the Chinese word hézuò 'cooperation'. Unfortunately, in normal Japanese, gassaku is used only in the sense of 'co-production' (as in movie co-production). It does not mean 'cooperation' in the Chinese sense.

3. Instead of 'pivot' I originally used 'hub' or 'anchor', but changed it to 'pivot' in the light of comments at this site.

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