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Importing English into Chinese dictionary stirs controversy

By Wan Lixin   (Shanghai Daily)

16:21, September 07, 2012

(Shanghai Daily /Illustration by Zhou Tao)

Recently some Chinese scholars have complained that the inclusion of many English abbreviations such as NBA (National Basketball Association) in a newly published Chinese dictionary violates current laws and regulations governing the use of Chinese language.

They claimed that the main body of the newly published "Modern Chinese Dictionary" includes 239 entries containing letters from the Latin alphabet, which are treated as if they are common Chinese words.

In a joint letter, around 120 scholars said that as an authority on the correct use of the Chinese language, the dictionary's inclusion of so many English words is a threat to the purity of the Chinese language, resulting in linguistic damage probably unprecedented in modern history.

While the perceived damage is yet to be assessed, I think the threat these scholars alert us to is very real.

Sadly, their initiative has not gone down well with the general populace. Most of the media comments call these scholars alarmist, conservatives who are eminently out of touch with reality, or pedants seeking attention by creating a stir.

'Practical' objections

The objections are "practical": If we're not allowed to use GDP, CPI, or CT, we would be hard pressed to find any Chinese equivalents so succinct and expressive. We might face the dilemma of never being able to suggest these wonderful things.

Or is it because these abbreviations obfuscate so well?

How many Chinese officials enthused about GDP know this metric that has come to encapsulate all that they can aspire to in their political career is no more than some "products."

The same is true of CT. It saves the patient - probably doctors too - the trouble of knowing what it actually is. In spite of this, enunciating the letters flatters their vanity.

Some say that knowledge is power. Actually ignorance empowers even better. Look at those chic ladies and girls sporting handbags marked LV, or C, or YSL. Their lack of understanding about what these esoteric symbols stand for actually heighten their pleasure in exhibiting these handbags.

Similarly, when an economist divulges on the latest PMI, PPI, or EEI, he is spared the trouble of explaining in what ways these measures concern our daily life.

Due to linguistic peculiarities, much can be lost in translating a Chinese poem to English. But it would be ridiculous to claim that GDP, CPI, or CT are untranslatable.

Any suggestion that the Chinese language is too clumsy to absorb new concepts could only have proceeded from ignorance, and a disdain for the language.

We can imagine that if the United States and the United nations were founded today, they would have a higher chance in China of being called by their English original, rather than the cumbersome and slightly misleading meiguo or lianheguo.

Nothing shows the "the grass-is-greener-on-the-other-side" mindset better than the labels and advertisements around us.

If you look around, nearly all the computers, handsets, shoes or toys around us are made in China. Do you notice how many of them are branded, labeled, or explained in Chinese?

A couple of days ago on the Metro, I found the "Emergency Call" sign much more conspicuous and "dignified" than its Chinese counterpart. Does this practice conform to the relevant law on language use?

When a thoroughbred foreign label is not available, pinyin can also impress the uninitiated.

Some have observed that part of Haier's success lies in it having a brand name that many mistake for German.

Motorola and Nokia have the misfortune of being translated into Chinese, albeit phonetically, but Apple no longer finds it necessary to turn iPhones into Chinese. Both Motorola and Nokia are now in trouble.

In line with this mindset, we are not only abstaining from doing the disservice of translating a good brand, we are also beginning to reconsider some fairly established earlier Chinese renderings.

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