Language Matters: How a Minor Mistranslation Can Affect US-China Relations

By Julian Ku
Saturday, April 1, 2017, 2:07 PM

Earlier this week, Reuters posted a short report quoting the official spokesman of China’s Ministry of National Defense as saying "there is no such thing as man-made islands” in response to a question about the South China Sea. This curious statement was quoted in the story’s headline, and the quote and the story were then republished by several other media outlets around the world. These stories led Sebastian Gorka, a top official on the U.S. National Security Council, to deride China’s statement by pointing out that the islands can be seen on Google Earth. Gorka then went on to decry China’s “territorial expansionism.”

But there is just one problem with this story and Gorka’s reaction to it. It is all based on a minor but non-trivial mistranslation of the Chinese spokesman’s comments. And although this mistranslation had only a minor impact, this whole episode is a cautionary tale of how even a tiny nuance in language and translation can negatively affect U.S.-China relations.

On March 30, the Chinese Ministry of National Defense held a press conference for reporters in Beijing. The spokesman, Senior Colonel Wu Qian, was asked a series of questions, including some about reports in the U.S. media describing the completion of facilities on China’s controversial South China Sea man-made islands. The official MND English translation reported Wu’s response as the following:

Firstly, there is no “man-made” islands. Secondly, the Nansha Islands are inherently Chinese territory. Whether we build facilities on these islands, what we do and how we do that are within our sovereign rights.

This official translation appears to be the origin of the Reuters report, although Reuters added the words “no such thing” to the official MND translation. Either way, it makes the Chinese seem arrogant in blithely rejecting even the existence of the artificial islands. Alternatively, it suggested China doesn’t think it is building islands, but simply building on top of existing islands.

But in reviewing the original Chinese transcript, I noticed that Wu actually said:

第一,不存在什么“人工岛礁”的问题. 第二,南沙群岛是中国固有领土,中国在自己的国土上是否搞建设,搞何种建设,怎样搞建设,完全是中国主权范围内的事情。

To me (and several of my fellow Chinese-reading Twitter friends), the first sentence in Wu’s statement should really be translated as something closer to “First, no issue with the ‘man-made islands’ exists” (emphasis added). When the word “issue” (roughly a translation of wenti问题) is added back into the translation, the meaning of Wu’s statement is less startling. It would certainly never merit a headline in a Reuters story about the press conference. NSC staffer Gorka would never have been misled into sneering at the Chinese statement by citing Google Earth. And the Chinese would not come off quite as arrogant and blind to international criticism of its actions as the Reuters headline made them out to be. To be sure, the full statement is still troubling for reasons I won’t go into here, but not quite as troubling as it first appeared.

I don’t want to make more of this episode than it deserves. No meaningful damage to US-China relations will ensue from the MND’s imperfect translation. But it should remind those of us anxiously watching the upcoming Trump-Xi meeting in Florida that misunderstandings can arise from even small differences in translation. We can only hope that both sides keep this in mind when they convene in Mar-a-Lago next week.