Why some English words are controversial in China

  • 30 April 2014
  • From the section China
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File photo: Apple's iPad in China
Image caption There are translations for Nokia and Motorola, but not iPad or iPhone in China

Nowadays, if you eavesdrop on Chinese people's phone conversations, it is commonplace to hear English phrases popping up here and there, like "Okay", "Cool" and "Bye bye".

In today's Chinese publications, English abbreviations and acronyms also pop up frequently without any Chinese translations: GDP, WTO, Wifi, CEO, MBA, VIP and the air pollutant term PM2.5 are among the most popular.

This phenomenon, termed "zero translation", has sparked a fierce debate, with the Chinese Communist Party's official newspaper People's Daily the latest to join the fray.

"Why is zero translation so prevalent?" screams the headline in a recent commentary piece, citing as a bad example the text below, which considers the merits of an open source platform.


"Why do we have translations for Nokia and Motorola, but not for iPhone or iPad?" ask the authors.

What irritates them is the fact that these foreign terms are found not only in newspapers and online, but in serious science journals as well.

They claim that such practices damage the integrity and harmony of the Chinese language, dilute the richness of the Chinese culture and hamper comprehension. "How many people can understand these words?" they ask.

Image caption The translation of Coca-Cola - "tasty and jolly" - conveys a sense of euphoria

To put this in context - the Chinese language has over the years absorbed many foreign terms, especially English words. Early adoptions include 雷达 (leida) for "radar", 坦克 (tanke) for "tank", and 巧克力 (qiaokeli) for "chocolate".

Coca-Cola, whose Chinese rendition 可口可乐 (kekou kele) literally means "tasty and jolly", conveys a sense of euphoria that it is often held up as the best brand translation.

Unlike the "bad example text", these words and many others have been given Chinese characters so they blend into the Chinese language.

The problem now, the commentators claim, is that English words are used directly along with Chinese, without any translations. And there are many reasons why.

More and more Chinese people speak English and they like to switch between Chinese and English in conversation or when they write. The internet has helped spread English, especially in the fields of innovation and technology, while popular US and British films and TV dramas have also played a part.

The three authors of the People's Daily piece also cite worship of Western culture and technology, the scarcity of good translators and laziness as possible causes.

Image caption The use of the word NBA, the US professional basketball league with many fans in China, was banned

This is not the first time that attempts to purify the Chinese language have sparked national debate.

US basketball is very popular in China and "NBA" was used on TV for many years before the authorities decided to ban it in 2010, in favour of the Chinese rendition 美职篮 (mei zhi lan), which literally means American professional basketball instead.

This proved very controversial. In 2012, the Modern Chinese Dictionary, long considered the authority in language use, included NBA and more than 200 other foreign words in its new edition, and NBA made its way back on TV.

Around 100 scholars then signed an open letter to the national publication authorities, accusing the dictionary editors of violating Chinese laws and regulations. They argued that including such English terms and abbreviations in the Chinese dictionary would do long-term damage to the language.

Not everybody agreed. The official Xinhua news agency carried a piece by Zhang Kuixing wondering how the use of some English vocabulary in a dictionary could be against the law if the language was legal in China.

The author argued that a dictionary should reflect usage; and since terms such as NBA were already in common use, inclusion in the dictionary simply reflected reality.

Others said the ultimate aim of language was communication, and a language should not shut out foreign words. A dictionary, they argued, should provide references of language use and help readers.

Fast forward to 2014 - and linguistic use has become heavily politicised again, with People's Daily blaming "a lack of pride and confidence in one's own culture and language, which leads to blindly worshipping anything Western".

The idea would be for all foreign words to have proper Chinese translations: experts would be able to submit their translations for public consultation and trial use before they became official. People would even vote for their favourite translations.

There has been a sharp reaction on Chinese social media. Some have posted long-winded Chinese passages to show how inconvenient it would be to dispense with the English usage.

Others have questioned the point in learning foreign languages if they are not put to good use.

There has even been a suggestion that the title of Chinese state television, CCTV, should be banned. It is, after all, an English abbreviation.

This looks like the start of a long battle.

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