Peking makes diplomatic language a game of Chinese whispers

Until the Sino-American Treaty of Wanghia in 1844, China's rulers stipulated that foreigners in the Middle Kingdom were not allowed to learn Chinese, such was the Imperial court's contempt for and fear of the foreign devils.

Now, China is taking the opposite tack: key government briefings for foreign journalists will, from next month, take place without the customary English translation, in a move which the People's Daily yesterday said "demonstrates that a China full of confidence is walking toward the world with bigger strides".

Explaining the policy, officials blithely point out that the US State Department conducts its briefings only in English - without Chinese interpretation. Now China will do the same.

The proposed change is symptomatic of China's demands for global "respect", now that its "international status is elevated day by day", said the People's Daily.

China's preoccupation with its rising status in the world is trumpeted daily in the official media, whether the reports are about visiting foreign dignitaries, Olympic Gold medals, or Hong Kong's return to Chinese sovereignty next year.

"The influence a country's spoken and written language has on the international community," the People's Daily maintained, "has a lot to do with the prosperity of the country. Only when a country is respected will its written and spoken language be respected."

Unfortunately, the Chinese government seems to be unaware of the possible pitfalls of its new linguistic rectitude. The statement said that the new policy "would enable the world to understand China better".

Or then again, maybe not. Mandarin Chinese is notoriously difficult, and few foreigners feel confident about reliably translating the subtly worded replies served up at Foreign Ministry briefings. In the past, a ministry translator has provided an "official" translation to be used by everyone, which is corrected on the spot by the spokesman if it is found to be in error.

From now on, each media organisation will have to come up with its own version, in which the diplo-speak may well be mistranslated. A hundred different versions of what China has said about Sino-US relations, Taiwan, Hong Kong or nuclear testing will appear around the world.

The Chinese government forbids foreign media organisations to hire translators except through the state-run Diplomatic Service Bureau, but the language skills of the staff on offer are often inadequate.

Peking says that it wants international recognition of the "unprecedented charm and dignity" of the Chinese language.

Certainly, the ministry's current use of Chinese is imaginative, if not necessarily charming. A frequently used phrase about the "five principles of peaceful co-existence", for example, might be more accurately translated as: "Why other countries must not raise China's record on human rights".

Suggested Topics
Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
Arts and Entertainment
Under the skin: Sarah Kane in May 1998
theatreThe story behind a new season of Sarah Kane plays
Arts and Entertainment
Preening: Johnny Depp in 'Mortdecai'
filmMortdecai becomes actor's fifth consecutive box office bomb
Sport
Bradford City's reward for their memorable win over Chelsea is a trip to face either Sunderland or Fulham (Getty)
football
News
Lars Andersen took up archery in his mid thirties
video
Voices
Focus E15 Mothers led a protest to highlight the lack of affordable housing in London
voicesLondon’s housing crisis amounts to an abuse of human rights, says Grace Dent
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Warehouse Operations & Logistics Manager

£38000 - £42000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: One of the UK's best performing...

Recruitment Genius: GeoDatabase Specialist - Hazard Modelling

£35000 - £43000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Our award-winning client is one...

Recruitment Genius: Compressed Air Pipework Installation Engineer

£15000 - £21000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This leading provider of Atlas ...

Recruitment Genius: Operations Coordinator - Pallet Network

£18000 - £20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Opportunity to join established...

Day In a Page

Syria crisis: Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more refugees as one young mother tells of torture by Assad regime

Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more Syrian refugees

One young mother tells of torture by Assad regime
The enemy within: People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back – with promising results

The enemy within

People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back
'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

Survivors of the Nazi concentration camp remember its horror, 70 years on
Autumn/winter menswear 2015: The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore

Autumn/winter menswear 2015

The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore
'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

Army general planning to come out
Iraq invasion 2003: The bloody warnings six wise men gave to Tony Blair as he prepared to launch poorly planned campaign

What the six wise men told Tony Blair

Months before the invasion of Iraq in 2003, experts sought to warn the PM about his plans. Here, four of them recall that day
25 years of The Independent on Sunday: The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century

25 years of The Independent on Sunday

The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century
Homeless Veterans appeal: 'Really caring is a dangerous emotion in this kind of work'

Homeless Veterans appeal

As head of The Soldiers' Charity, Martin Rutledge has to temper compassion with realism. He tells Chris Green how his Army career prepared him
Wu-Tang Clan and The Sexual Objects offer fans a chance to own the only copies of their latest albums

Smash hit go under the hammer

It's nice to pick up a new record once in a while, but the purchasers of two latest releases can go a step further - by buying the only copy
Geeks who rocked the world: Documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry

The geeks who rocked the world

A new documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry
Belle & Sebastian interview: Stuart Murdoch reveals how the band is taking a new direction

Belle & Sebastian is taking a new direction

Twenty years ago, Belle & Sebastian was a fey indie band from Glasgow. It still is – except today, as prime mover Stuart Murdoch admits, it has a global cult following, from Hollywood to South Korea
America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

These days in the US things are pretty much stuck where they are, both in politics and society at large, says Rupert Cornwell
A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

A veteran of the Fifties campaigns is inspiring a new generation of activists
Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

A C Benson called him 'a horrid little fellow', George Orwell would have shot him, but what a giant he seems now, says DJ Taylor
Growing mussels: Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project

Growing mussels

Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project