Ending the myths about translation

The Problem of Translation - by Thorsten Pattberg
The Problem of Translation – by Thorsten Pattberg

Ending the myths about translation

This letter was published in Global Times on September 24, 2012.

Few people realize that the Bible discourages people from studying foreign languages. The story of the Tower of Babel informs us that there is one humanity, only that “our languages are confused.” From a European historical perspective, that has always meant that, say, any German philosopher could know exactly what the Chinese people were thinking, the only problem being that he couldn’t understand them.

This attitude in the Western hemisphere has never changed, with the effect that we live in a crazy world today. Most Europeans believe that the Chinese “speak their languages,” only that they “talk” in Chinese. Take the case of “democracy” and “human rights.” Those are European words and do not exist in China at all.

This European attitude is reflected in its translations. Most Westerners simply translate every Chinese key concept into convenient biblical or philosophical terminology. As a result, the Western image of China is literal Chinese-free.

Why do we still destroy foreign key vocabulary? First, for sociological reasons. If Germany censors all important foreign terminologies, the public is lead to think it alone knows everything there is to be known in the world. It might sound very depressing, but truth must be told: The West knows little about China, and cultural China has never become a truly global phenomenon.