Lost in translation?

1 May 2008

“Modern” China is still disconnected from the West by confusing and complex cultural exchanges that prevent each from understanding the other, academics will suggest at a Cambridge University conference this week.

In the first event of its kind, scholars from Britain, China and the US will attempt to explain how ideas are transmitted between the two cultures, amid concerns that the very process of translation both shapes and misshapes mutual understanding.

Focussing on ideas about modernism and modernity, experts in Chinese studies, literature and linguistics will argue that despite the perceived westernisation of Chinese culture, western concepts are in fact being reinterpreted and transformed in a uniquely Chinese way.

The result, they will suggest, has been a surge of exciting new ideas and forms in Chinese culture, society and art . Failure to break through that translation barrier and “unthink” our own western cultural systems, however, potentially limits the relationship between countries like Britain and America, and the world’s biggest emerging superpower.

“The rise of China as a major force in the age of globalisation makes it more urgent than ever to ask what processes of transmission mediate cultural exchanges between China and the West,” said Professor Mary Jacobus, from Cambridge University and convener of the conference.

“It’s very easy to assume, in light of events such as the Beijing Olympics or the appearance of branches of McDonald’s in major Chinese cities, that Chinese modernity is interacting with the west in a seamless way, rather than effecting transformations.

“In fact there is still a need to understand its culture more deeply, and in particular to understand how not just words, but ideas and metaphors are crossing the East-West divide and producing new and different concepts of modernity.”

The event, which is being hosted by the University’s Centre for Research in the Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences (CRASSH) as part of an Arts and Humanities Reesarch Council-funded network, will suggest that since the late 19th century China has been engaged in a quest for modernity which involved absorbing Western culture and knowledge.

How far that has led to mutual understanding, however, is questionable. Academics will argue that the English language itself has in some areas been “reterritorialised” – with new uses of the language emerging within China to convey local cultural concepts that native English speakers would struggle to understand.

The conference will also raise the question of whether western ideas and meanings are being translated into Chinese, or simply transliterated. The word for “telephone” in some parts of China, for instance, is “delufeng” – an attempt to pronounce the English word without taking its meaning into account. Scholars believe that “delufeng” syndrome may be present on a much larger scale in China’s cultural exchanges with the west. A process of “creolization”, in which the simplification of concepts as they cross the cultural boundaries could be underway, inspiring new creative forms.

In an attempt to explore this further, other speakers at the three-day event will analyse issues such as the rise of alternative modernism in Chinese literature, the influence of western cinema on Chinese documentaries, and China’s attempts to gain international recognition in the form of accolades such as Nobel Prizes for literature which transform the western canon.

Full details of the event, entitled Translations And Transformations can be found online at: http://www.crassh.cam.ac.uk/events. The conference has been organised by the Arts and Humanities Research Council network in Translations and Transformations, which aims to create and sustain relationships with scholars in the UK, China and the US.