“You’re stepping on my shadow, please back off,” she said.

Sun Yisheng / Nicky Harman

No "Fooling Around"

By Lucas Klein, published

As my first post on Paper Republic, I want to be very serious. No "fooling around," indeed.

As a follow-up to an earlier post on 折騰, here's what my dictionary has to say:

折騰 zhē teng 1. (翻來倒去) turn from side to side; toss about 2. (反復做某事) do sth. over and over again 3. (折磨) cause physical or mental suffering; get sb. down

Based on this definition, this entry--and Paper Republic in general--seems to be an example of def. 1, because we're certainly 翻來倒去, or, to mistranslate that phrase, "translating over and over."

But for some reason my dictionary doesn't tell me whether 折騰 is transitive or intransitive, or when, leaving it only suggested in the grammar of the definitions.

I bring this up because based on what I've heard, officials in the Party--whose task it will be to undertake Hu Jintao's directives--interpret "don't zhēteng" to mean that in the past, the Party was too willing to "zhēteng rén" 折騰人, or be more interested in causing harm to people than be productive and work on developing the economy and creating a harmonious society. I guess for that reason I prefer bù zhēteng 不折騰 to be translated as "don't fuss" or "don't be a bother," with the understanding that it also implies "don't fuss with people," "don't be a bother to people." It's a bit more formal, I think, and I think it gets at the diversity of the phrase's meanings.

But the point is not to find one translation for one word that will match all possible contexts for its meanings. Any of the options in the previous post & following comments seem fine by me. The question is, how do grammar (transitive vs. intransitive) and context (govt. officials concerned about the history of their party) affect our understanding of how to translate?

Of course, these are, as they say, SO (source-oriented) questions in the world of translation, or questions that presume some sense of standard of accuracy against which we can judge translations. For that reason alone, some of us (and me, depending on my mood) might want to step aside from this sort of question altogether. But, especially in the translation of poetry (more on this in future posts), I think we've become very focused on the TO (target-oriented) elements of translation, and sometimes this has worked to our deficit. Half of our task as translators is to convey the message into English, but the other half is to make sure that we're conveying the right message, and that our understanding of Chinese--not just the word, but the grammar, and the historical and political contexts--is solid enough that we know what we're trying to convey.

Comments

# 1.   

The problem in this case is that there's no agreement as to what the term means in Chinese. It doesn't have a grammatical context in the original speech, so we don't have that to work with, and subsequent interpretations range from the one you bring up in your post, to a warning against misusing public funds for prestige projects, and even a veiled threat to the public not to pester the government quite so much (there's precedent for this interpretation in earlier local government sloganeering that paired 折腾 with 争论 or other similar words). To some extent, I find the fascination in the Chinese-language media with finding a proper English translation for 不折騰 a clever way of debating the meaning of the word itself without risking the possibility of committing a grave political error (as happened to the radio commentator who attempted to render the term into Cantonese).

zhwj, January 20, 2009, 1:13a.m.

# 2.   

I like zhwj's take on this question, pointing out that the word's significance in Chinese is far from settled, and that that significance should be resolved before we attempt to translate the term into English.

I think the textual context of the Chinese word (as one of a series of three intransitive verbs) supports the interpretation given in the article I translated earlier: These are three things the government should not do. In this case, bu zheteng might just mean "don't waste time on things that don't contribute to the practical goals of government".

But then I'm reminded of my early Chinese studies, and how one of the hurdles was letting go of the rigid grammatical categories that English had imposed on my thinking. I'm not convinced that there is any major distinction, to the native Chinese speaker, between zheteng the transitive verb and zheteng the intransitive verb. It seems to me that the word could serve both purposes. I would love to be argued out of this idea.

 Eric Abrahamsen, January 20, 2009, 11:07a.m.

# 3.   

I also think zhwj is onto something profound in suspecting that all the debate about how to translate this word into English (and has anyone bothered thinking about how this word might be translated into Arabic, or French or German, or Japanese, or Spanish...?) acts as a side-door to wondering about its real political meaning.

I expect by now interested readers will have seen this article, about how Rén Xiǎopíng 任小萍, the PRC's ambassador to Namibia, would translate zhēteng into English.

Salient part: Ren collected different translations of the phrase "bu zheteng" on the Internet, including "don't flip flop," "don't get sidetracked," "don't sway back and forth," "no dithering," "no major changes," "avoid futile actions," "stop making trouble and wasting time" and "no self-consuming political movements."

That pretty much covers all the bases, at least politically speaking, though of course we should note that some of these are contradictory ("don't flip flop" and "no major changes" and "no self-consuming political movements"?).

And yet, we should also notice how few of these translations say what 不折騰 says the way it says it, which to me is the goal of literary translation, and what we've been debating here when we say that it should be translated as "no fooling around" or "no fussing" or. But the ambassador really falls off when she settles on her own attempt at translating the phrase into English, "which she believes is more appropriate: avoid self-inflicted setbacks."

Lucas Klein, January 20, 2009, 2:24p.m.

# 4.   

Another link for Paper-Republic readers to look to is this poll, showing results for an online poll where netizens can vote for their favorite translation from a limited range of options (including one posed by renowned erudite & Chinese Sanskritist Jì Xiànlín 季羡林).

Voting for best translation strikes me as odd in itself, but I wonder if I'm over-indulging in interpretation when I think that the preference for pinyin "bu zheteng" as "best translation" indicates a lingering belief in the impossibility of communication between cultures and in untranslatability as a virtue.

Lucas Klein, January 20, 2009, 8:28p.m.

# 5.   

This is a neat discussion, and kudos to zhwj for getting it right from the word go: The use of "zheteng" in Chinese is definitely open to interpretation. Our discussion is not necessarily more "right" or "wrong" than those going on among native speakers; I don't think a lot of people -- particularly the southerners I know -- have any idea what "zheteng" really means to a Beijinger, for instance.

Translation is a very holistic art form. One needs to get a handle on what a term means WITHIN what is now commonly called the 语境. Trying to translate it before doing so will give you some pretty bizarre "solutions." That's why if I'm having a translation problem and can't ask a native speaker, I tend to use a Chinese-Chinese dictionary or google the word in Chinese, rather than depending on a Chinese-English dictionary.

Re: the "context" here, we shouldn't neglect the fact that it was uttered by a political animal within a political setting, where dialects such as Beijinghua (used to be Hunanhua, but times change) are sometimes used to bring ideas (and political campaigns) alive; standard Putonghua being a terribly dull and mechanical, if not simply synthetic, language. People don't swear, argue or get horny in standard Mandarin, and why should they?

I spoke to a former high-ranking cadre in the Propaganda ministry, and he was very clear on what "zheteng" meant in Chinese. From what he said, "to get sidetracked" is very much the meaning, though this term may not capture the "feeling" of the term.

As to the popularity of the "pinyin" solution, I agree with Lucas' intuition. Most Chinese have a fairly imprecise grasp of English, and therefore assume that this is the case for most (if not all!) foreign speakers of hanyu...

Bruce, January 21, 2009, 10:28a.m.

# 6.   

"From what he said, "to get sidetracked" is very much the meaning, though this term may not capture the "feeling" of the term."

To paddle oneself up s--t creek?

Chris Waugh, January 21, 2009, 11:48a.m.

# 7.   

I heard that someone has proposed another translation: "z-turn." In addition to indicating the meaning of "to waver" or "to get sidetracked," it also captures the sound of 折騰, as well. I'll try to find a link to the article.

I can't imagine any serious news translators translating the statement 不动摇不懈怠不折腾 as "Do not waver, do not slacken, do not z-turn," but I like the inventiveness from a poetic standpoint.

Lucas Klein, January 21, 2009, 2:05p.m.

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