Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Continuously Lost in Translation

Part of the challenge of dealing with culture not one's own, whether it be for business, academia or diplomacy is finding a common language in which one can communicate with others.

A few comments on Twitter and Google Reader about yesterday's post bring this difficulty to light. Part of the upshot of that post was that perhaps many outside of China had mistranslated guo tui min jin to mean "privatization" when that was not the understanding of those in China who propounded the policy.

I would even suggest that when Chinese use the word "privatization" in English language conversation, their understanding may also be different from that of native English speakers who use the same word.

We tend to define both 民营化 (minyinghua) and 私有化 (siyouhua) as "privatization", and vice-versa. As I showed in yesterday's post, the Chinese do not define minyinghua and siyouhua as the same thing. However, a glance at both Google Translate and Babelfish shows these two terms as interchangeable with the English word "privatization".

Based on discussions that have taken place since yesterday's post, I feel safe in saying that privatization and minyinghua do not have precisely the same meanings. As nearly as I can tell, here is what they do mean:

privatization = absence of government involvement

民营化 = presence of non-government involvement

To illustrate, when the US Government finally sells its 60 percent stake in General Motors, this will be considered a "privatization". But the Chinese definition of minyinghua is already satisfied at the present because the other 40 percent of General Motors shares are in the hands of non-governmental entities (the UAW, institutional and private investors).

In China the fact that many of China's large SOEs are now publicly traded and minority positions are held by non-governmental entities counts as 民营化, and if our dictionaries are to be believed, it also counts as privatization. However, in this case, we are better off not trusting our dictionaries.

As a bonus, here's another term that we often get wrong.

Our dictionaries define 外国人 (waiguoren, literally, "outside person") as "foreigner", and vice-versa. However, when Chinese citizens visit the United States, they do not consider themselves to be 外国人.


Because the opposite of 外国人 is 中国人 (zhongguoren) or Chinese person (literally, person from the Central Kingdom). Their identities as 中国人 do not change when they leave China.

So while I refer to Chinese visitors in America as "foreigners", and I refer to myself as a "foreigner" when I visit China, the Chinese always refer to me as 外国人 and themselves as 中国人, irrespective of location.

And while I fully agree with the sage advice of Dan Harris at ChinaLawBlog to write your agreements with Chinese counterparties in Chinese, you may also want to ensure that you and your counterparties agree on what all of the words mean.

I know there are many other equally confusing Chinese-English translations. Which ones have you come across?

The next post in this series can be found here.


  1. Regarding translation of 外国人: I've had Chinese friends in the USA (both short-term and long-term residents) who thought it rather odd when I referred to myself as such, and remarked that THEY were the 外国人, given their presence in my country of origin.

    As for 民营化/私有化 with respect to 国进民退/etc., it seems the Party's role as ultimate arbiter makes this all pretty fluid and subject to their needs of the moment.

    Regardless, good post that gave me something to think about.

  2. From a linguistic perspective, 私有化 seems to emphasize ownership, whereas 民营化 seems to emphasize management.

    It's also important to point out that both 私有化 and 民营化 refer to *processes* (as does privatization, for that matter), as in "becoming more privately owned" and "becoming more run by the people (or privately run)", and not the *presence* of private ownership or ownership. Given this, General Motors has actually undergone a process of 国有化 as opposed to 私有化, and it certainly hasn't been 民营化-ed, because it's always been 民营-ed.

    Please excuse my Chinglish. :)

  3. @v0rt,

    That's interesting! So you used the term 外国人 referring to yourself first? If so, maybe it made them consider the issue for the first time (or maybe longer-term residents had already had the conversation?).

    In my case, it has always come up when Chinese first referred to me as 外国人. I have always considered it to be simply a reflex, but chose to have fun with the notion -- which often resulted in stunned looks on their faces as the idea first occurred to them that they were now the foreigner.

    And I agree with you that the Party certainly has demonstrated its ability to twist word meanings to suit its purposes over the years. This may be one such case.

    @John Gordon

    Thanks for your comment, and your Chinglish makes complete sense to me! :)

    The original 1999 text I got these terms from does use use "民有民营" and "国有国营" to indicate sort of a conflation of ownership and management (which, now that I think about it, is probably a good thing -- they recognize that the owner would also at least have a role in management).

    Your point about these being *processes* is a good one. I shall have to rethink my definitions to reflect that.


    Thanks to all who comment here! Your input is valuable and definitely influences my thinking.

  4. Fascinating posts! But reading some of the controversy in the Chinese press over the - supposed - phenomenon of "Guo jin, Min tui" I wonder whether some in China may not also use the term "minyinghua" in the sense of "privatization". Could it be that while (parts of?) the state and party have a fairly clear conception of "minyinghua" as something different than full-scale privatization, other players in the wider policy-relevant world (universities/think-tanks, the press, ngos, maybe even sections of the state/party) who favour outright privatization have also used the ambiguities of the term and its translation, construing it as Indeed meaning "privatization", and not something else. I.e., while your argument about the meaning of "minyinghua" seems persuasive to me at least for the most official discourses, I wonder whether in fact the meaning of the term might be quite contested, as different players with divergent conceptions of what's best for China/themselves seek to foist whatever meaning seems most useful to them on this term.

  5. Thanks, NM. (I think I know who you are. :)

    I agree with you.

    So maybe it's not only us in the West who took 民营化 to mean privatization, but also a lot of others inside China who took it at face value as well. Though the guy who came up with the idea is somewhat of an academic -- if we think being a Professor at the Party School counts. :)

    That being the case, maybe our dictionaries are right after all (at least in this case), and it is only the Party up to its usual word games (as v0rt alludes to in his/her comment above).


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