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".

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