Thursday, January 22, 2009

bu zheteng

There is an interesting linguistic debate happening here in China in regards to something Hu Jintao said during his recent speech commemorating the 30th anniversary of China's reform and opening. While pushing forward with development goals, China should 不动摇,不懈怠,不折腾, which the China Daily translated as "don't sway back and forth, relax our efforts or get sidetracked." Everyone seems content with the translation of the first two terms, but there is a lot of debate about the third - 不折腾 (bu4 zhe1 teng) - both what Mr. Hu meant and how to translate it.

A couple of weeks ago, Danwei posted a great summary of the issue, and I recommend readers start there for background. Yesterday, Austin at the Time China blog posted his (humorous) interpretation and suggestion, and linked to the recently published state-run Xinhua's suggestions:
- bu zheteng
- no trouble-making
- avoid self-inflicted setbacks
- don't flip flop
- don't get sidetracked
- don't sway back and forth
- no dithering
- no major changes
- avoid futile actions
- stop making trouble and wasting time、no self-consuming political movements
What fascinates me is the first suggestion - "bu zheteng" - which is just the Chinese rendered in the standard romanization system, pinyin. The implication being that if it can't be translated adequately, why try?

Last night, my colleagues, all of whom are Chinese, and I had a discussion about how to translate bu zheteng. They all seem to agree that the best solution is simply for us English-speakers to adopt bu zheteng into our language. What do you think?

Bearing in mind that I'm an engineer, not a linguist, off the top of my head I can think of two categories of Chinese words that have been adopted into the English language:

The first is Chinese words that have been fully integrated and are included in standard English language dictionaries. Examples: tofu, from the Chinese dou4 fu 豆腐, and kung fu, from the Chinese gong1 fu 功夫.

The second is Chinese words that expats living in China routinely use colloquially when speaking to each other, either because no equivalent English word exists, or because it describes perfectly a phenomenon unique to China. Examples:

- chai 拆, meaning to demolish, e.g. "I used to love that restaurant; too bad it got chai'ed last week."
- mafan 麻烦, meaning troublesome / annoying, e.g. "Traveling during Chinese New Year's is too much mafan, I think I'll just stay in Beijing next week."

My prediction is that bu zheteng will be integrated by expats into the unique brand of Chinglish that we use when speaking to other China expats, but that there is little to no chance that bu zheteng will become the next tofu.

Update 2/17/09:

Great photo today in The Beijinger:



Rob said...

Enough of the bu zhetengning, man. There isn't enough PM10 in the blogosphere?


Adam J. Schokora said...

Vdubs, maybe the best literal translation is what everyone is saying: "dont get side-tracked." But, I think the real meaning behind the phrase is "be productive." That's just my interpretation though.


Anonymous said...

this is actually stupid translation!All those Pinyin are non-Latin-based and non-English-based characters only for pointing out the pronunciation of the chinese character not for translation.But unfortunately plenty of people including China government don`t know this,stupidly using Pinyin to translation everything they don`t know how to translation.What a terrible English skill chinese offices they have !

Anonymous said...

in a addition ,i`m chinese who majority in English .

Anonymous said...

Chaise Lounge Says: "Amazing blog!"

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