Lost in translation or a threat of terror?

11:00, May 28, 2010      

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When Chinese student Du Juan brought her American boyfriend home two years ago to use the toilet, her Japanese roommate became so upset that she shouted in English: "I hate you."

Du, then 21 and an undergraduate at Bridgewater State College in Massachusetts, was shocked. So was her boyfriend.

"I did not think the presence of a male visitor could be cause for hatred," she said.

The Japanese student complained to the campus supervisor, but school authorities sided with Du and said they were also puzzled why the situation warranted hatred.

"Later I realized that she didn't literally mean what she said and that she was not aware of the full meaning of the word 'hate' in English," said Du.

"It was more a problem with translation," she added.

Cultural differences can cause confusion about what words or even actions mean, an issue that has come to the forefront recently following the arrest of a Chinese doctoral degree student in New Jersey.

Zhai Tiantian, who studied at the Stevens Institute of Technology, has been accused of trying to set fire to a campus building and of making threats to a professor who gave him a low mark.

No physical altercation took place but Zhai reportedly said something along the lines of "at worst, I will risk anything on the line." The professor called the campus police.

According to the indictment sheet, Zhai is facing the serious charge of making a terroristic threat.

For a few days, Chinese media mistranslated, or misunderstood, the charges and reported that Zhai was being charged with terrorism.

The charge of making a terrorist threat can include a range of verbal threats, according to an Associated Press report.

Officials at the Stevens Institute issued a clarification, saying they were concerned the story was being misreported and that a long-running disciplinary situation has been blown out of proportion into an international incident.

The Stevens officials also said that several foreign news reports indicating Zhai was arrested for questioning authorities were incorrect.

Some language experts have speculated that the disagreement between Zhai and the professor can also be chalked up to cultural and linguistic differences.

"What Chinese people regard as acceptable speech may be regarded by Americans as threats," said Luo Gang, the Chinese Consulate's Overseas Chinese Affairs consul. "This is an unfortunate incident. Even though Zhai intended no harm, he has done himself a great deal of harm."

"While I don't know enough about the incident to say what happened, it's certainly true that, in general, people speaking a second language don't always have a complete understanding of the weight of what they're saying," said 30-year-old American Eveline Chao, author of the Chinese slang book Niu Bi and a Princeton graduate in English.
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