Tibetan –> Chinese –> Chinglish, ch. 2

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This is a sequel to "Tibetan –> Chinese –> Chinglish " (11/11/15).

(‘Alone, Popecity’ 独克宗, a street sign on National Highway 214 at the entrance to Shangri-La, 2015. Photo: William Ratz)

The above photograph is from Ben Hillman's fascinating "Shangri-la ཞང་རི་ལ་: rebuilding a myth " (11/16/15) in The China Story Journal, from the Australian Centre on China in the World.  It's about the town of Zhongdian 中甸 in China’s southwest Yunnan province.  Hillman recounts the elaborate efforts to rebuild what had largely become a dilapidated, deserted old town into a trendy, fashionable tourist spot — with a Swede, an Englishman, and an American initially leading the renewal efforts beginning around 2002.  An Old Town committee promoted "books full of fact and fiction", and studies about "the Old Town’s glorious past" were commissioned.

Hillman writes:

One such study, the main focus of which was to prove that Zhongdian was the inspiration for Shangri-la in Hilton’s 1933 novel Lost Horizon, uncovered the fact that the old town was once known as ‘Dukezong’ 独克宗 — a Chinese transliteration of the Tibetan name rDo-dkar rDzong (pronounced Dorkhar Dzong), literally ‘Stone Fortress’ — a reference to the military outpost that guarded the Zhongdian Plain in centuries past. Although the name had long since fallen into disuse, officials and travel agencies actively promoted the exotic expression. ‘Dukezong’ was soon emblazoned on shiny new street signs. However, the county’s sign writers did not appear to appreciate the fact that ‘Dukezong’ was a Chinese transliteration (and not a translation) of Dorkhar Dzong and, as such, the Chinese characters had no meaning. Nonetheless, they translated the Chinese name for the Old Town into nonsensical English: ‘Alone, Pope City’. A humorous mistake perhaps, but it does reflect the more serious and widespread phenomenon of ideas and meanings becoming ‘lost in translation’ between Tibetan and Chinese. A more significant example is the term ‘living Buddha’, a direct translation of the Chinese term ‘huofo’ 活佛. This itself is an inaccurate translation of the Tibetan sprul.sku སྤྲུལ་སྐུ (pronounced ‘tulku’), the reincarnate custodians of a specific lineage of Buddhist teachings, many of whom are considered to be Bodhisattvas. The fact that many English-language texts refer to ‘living Buddhas’ highlights the extent to which Tibet’s cultural heritage is interpreted and misinterpreted through the lens of the dominant Chinese Han culture.

That accounts for much of what is wrong about the road sign pictured at the top of this post and about many other similar signs in the Tibetan speaking areas of China.  To flesh out other subtleties and blatancies about the wording on the sign, I asked several Tibetologist colleagues to comment.

Nathan Hill:

mkha' 'go la a chen

They meant to write

mkha' 'go lam chen

mkha' 'go 'high way'

rdo dkar rdzong gna' grong

rdo dkar (lit. white stone) county, gna' (lit. ancient) village

Elliot Sperling:

Well, I didn’t know Vatican City had relocated… or is this a dàobǎn 盗版 ("pirated") Vatican City?

The sign is a bit of a mess. 康珠大道 is rendered into English appropriately, but the Tibetan original is misspelled. Mkha’-gro is fine (the term is the Tibetan translation of the Sanskrit d­āka; in Tibetan this denotes a variety of celestial being). But the term for “avenue” (大道) is miswritten in Tibetan. It ought to be lam-chen but the letter “ma” at the end of lam is replaced with “A”, which is meaningless (and simply doesn’t occur in normal Tibetan).

The Tibetan in the second part of the sign is fine. Rdo-dkar-rdzong gna’-grong means “the ancient town of Rdo-dkar-rdzong” (rdo-dkar means “white stone”). The Chinese is also a reasonable translation/transcription: 独克宗古城. But the English! I can see 独  rendering “alone” and 宗 in some idiosyncratic reading perhaps as either 克宗  or  宗古  producing “Pope.” But still, it’s a mess!

Douglas Duckworth:

The first one:

(mkha' 'gro laa chen) is misspelled; it should be (mkha' 'gro lam chen) – (the second "a" should be a "m") : pronounced as "kan dro lam chen".

mkha' (sky) 'gro (goer) means "sky-goer" (ḍākinī) and lam (path) chen (great) means "great path" ("highway") liberally translated as "angel's highway"

The second one:

(rdo dkar rdzong gna' grong) pronounced as "do kar dzong na drong"

stone (rdo) white (dkar) county (rdzong) ancient (gna') city (grong)

translated as "the ancient city of white stone (Dokar) county"

Robbie Barnett:

The upper name on the sign is mkha' 'gro la chen, which means Sky-goer (ie., khandrolma, Skt: dakini). So the first two syllables of the Tibetan have been transliterated roughly into Chinese, while the last two are translated – from the Chinese, not the Tibetan, which is meaningless. The third syllable, la, has no meaning and is not a possible letter-combination in normal Tibetan. It's almost certainly an error by the sign-writer – and a big one – for lam chen, which means "great road" (and no, the letters "a" and "m" do not look the same or similar in Tibetan, except in the sense that "All Asians/Africans/Caucasians look the same").

The lower name is rdo dkar rdzong gna' grong, literally Stone-White-Fortress-Ancient-Town. It has no relation to loneliness or popes, though the concept of the town seems to have survived the translation process. However, there are some extra strokes below the gna' which make it look like a garbled miswriting of "gran" or "kran", which could stand for "town" (Chinese: zhen), and from a distance the separator seems to be missing between the last two syllables, with the result that the last syllable could be read as 'grong, which means "genitals" or "corpse". So from a distance it could be read as "(Chinese) town genitals" or "urban corpse". In which case it's good news that, according to Ben Hillman's article, it has reincarnated, several times.

About all that's left for me to do is provide the pinyin transcription and some explanations of the Chinese characters and the words they're supposed to represent:

Kāngzhū dàdào 康珠大道 ("Kangzhu Avenue")

Dúkèzōng gǔchéng 独克宗古城 ("Dúkèzōng Old City")

The two characters kāngzhū 康珠 together do not mean anything sensible in Chinese ("peaceful / well-being pearl / vermilion"), but are intended only to transcribe Tibetan Mkha’-gro (for the meaning of this term see the explanations above).  These two characters are often used to transcribe the sounds of Tibetan words.

Again, the three characters dúkèzōng 独克宗 together do not mean anything sensible in Chinese, but are intended only to transcribe Tibetan Rdo-dkar-rdzong (for the meaning of this name see the explanations above).  However, in going from Chinese to English, the person responsible for the English mistakenly attempted to translate the Chinese transcriptions into English instead of transcribing the Chinese characters with pinyin.  It would have been better for them just to keep the sounds as Dukezong.  Of course, better still would have been to transliterate directly from the Tibetan to English as Rdo-dkar-rdzong.  Instead, they chose to translate the Chinese transcription, dúkèzōng 独克宗, into English, resulting in an unholy mess:  "Alone, Pope City".

Since dú 独 means "sole; only" and gǔchéng 古城 means "Old City", we know where the "Alone, …City" comes from.  The question is how they got "Pope" from kèzōng 克宗.  The usual Chinese word for "pope" is jiàohuáng 教皇 ("teaching / doctrine-emperor / sovereign"); kèzōng 克宗 is far from that.  Kè 克 has many possible meanings; the two most likely to be operative here are "subdue" and "overcome".  Zōng 宗 has clear associations with religion, and is in fact the first syllable of the Sino-Japanese word for "religion":  zōngjiào / shūkyō 宗教.  The person responsible for this mistranslation ("kèzōng 克宗" as "pope") must have been searching for a religiously imbued term of high dignity in English to match what they misconceived as "subduing / overcoming religious [personage]" in Chinese.  They may have been thinking of Zhongdian 中甸 Old City as the seat of a powerful religious leader in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition, and the closest they could come to that in English was "pope".

Ah, the perils of translating through two languages (A –> B –> C), when what one really wants is to get from A to C!


  1. liuyao said,

    November 20, 2015 @ 3:23 pm

    Pope is also translated (more appropriately) as 教宗. I'm more amused by the connection Pope = Papa = father, and 宗, symbolically as offerings under roof, also relates to family before it comes to associate with religion. It really means a lineage (first genealogical, then religious), and for the royal family, it is the standard word in the temple names of emperors, to indicate the main lineage.

  2. Bathrobe said,

    November 20, 2015 @ 4:55 pm

    The fact that no one thought to translate direct from the Tibetan is a symptom of a larger problem in China: that "minority ethnic languages" are expected to find outlet to the wider world only through Chinese. They are, in effect, imprisoned in a world where the Chinese language and its culture stand as the custodian, gatekeeper, and ultimate legitimisers of minority ethnic cultures.

    This betrays firstly the jealousness of the Chinese authorities and their determination to maintain control over ethnic cultures, and secondly a peculiar culture arrogance of the Chinese in believing that their own grand culture is superior to and can contain and subsume the "lesser" cultures of the minority groups.

  3. John Swindle said,

    November 21, 2015 @ 5:44 am

    It's as if Native American place names and personal names were presented to the outside world as filtered through English. No, wait, that's what already happens.

  4. Bathrobe said,

    November 21, 2015 @ 7:18 am

    @ John Swindle

    Totally agree. No one is defending the treatment of indigenous peoples and cultures in the (post-)colonial world.

    Consider this, though: In Mongolia, you can buy modern bilingual dictionaries of Mongolian / English, Japanese, Russian, Turkish, and other languages.

    In Inner Mongolia, there is the old Mostaert Ordos Mongolian-French dictionary (which is more of academic value), and very recently a couple of small Mongolian-Chinese-English and English-Chinese-Mongolian dictionaries for students. For the rest, dictionaries are almost all Mongolian-Chinese / Chinese-Mongolian.

    Translation is in a similar situation. Translations of foreign works in "ethnic minority languages" are often just based on the Chinese translations. In Mongolia, there's a greater likelihood that they are translated from the original source.

    In China I've seen books for schoolchildren giving the English, Chinese, and Mongolian versions of English-language stories. The objective is to help children study English. One look at the text and it's patently clear that the Mongolian is based on the Chinese, not on the English. Of course this is due to a number of factors, including overwhelming familiarity with Chinese, but it shows the extent to which minority ethnic languages are cocooned inside China. Given Chinese treatment of ethnic identities, it's also hard to escape the conclusion that this is partly a result of deliberate policy.

    Mongolian and Tibetan are important languages that have respectable histories as vehicles of philosophy and literature. In this they are different from indigenous languages in North America, which were never written languages and, tragically, have been almost extirpated by colonialism. The two situations can be compared but they are not the same.

    The difference between Mongolian in Mongolia and Mongolian in China eventually boils down to the difference between being the language of an independent state and the language of a Chinese ethnic minority. Tibetan is in the same situation, except that there is no alternative Tibet to compare.

    (I see this issue has already been discussed at the first thread on Tibetan –> Chinese –> Chinglish)

  5. APOLLO WU said,

    November 22, 2015 @ 1:35 am

    The use of Chinese characters to transliterate names of places tends to introduce extra meanings. Pinyin would be a better choice. However, the alphabetic Pinyin is not yet considered as Chinese text, so it become mandatory to use Chinese characters for transliteration. Pinyin names of places are supposed foreign tourists. The error in the related English name is due to semantic translation of the meanings of the Chinese script.

  6. Eidolon said,

    November 23, 2015 @ 2:42 pm

    @"This betrays firstly the jealousness of the Chinese authorities and their determination to maintain control over ethnic cultures, and secondly a peculiar culture arrogance of the Chinese in believing that their own grand culture is superior to and can contain and subsume the "lesser" cultures of the minority groups."

    I'd agree with the first, but not the second, on this issue. There is certainly a lack of respect for minority cultures in China due to lack of any "civil rights" movements in the PRC, but it is not equivalent to the belief that [Han] Chinese *culture* could contain and subsume minority cultures.

    Translating Mongolian, Tibetan, etc. concepts via Chinese is ultimately an act of *political* possessiveness, as promoted and mandated by the multi-cultural concept of the PRC. It is not that the [Han] Chinese believe that their *culture* "contains" the Mongolian, Tibetan, etc. cultures. One frequently, in fact, hears of [Han] Chinese dissonance at the practices and customs of "those minorities," who are considered alien insofar as their cultures differ. When speaking to [Han] Chinese about the "incidents" in Xinjiang, for example, I am often told that those "Uyghur ruffians" are completely different from the [Han] Chinese culturally and more similar to the "Middle-Eastern terrorists they see on TV."

    By the same analogy, when Americans and other European colonial powers translated their native subjects' ideas, names, and concepts into their respective European languages for presentation to the outside world in the 17th through 20th centuries, it was not because they believed that their European cultures could subsume/contain the native subjects' cultures but simply for 1) convenience, 2) political possessiveness, and 3) the lack of modern day sensibilities towards respecting other cultures. It is the third that I think best explains this practice in general, as the idea of authenticity in the representation of minorities is a particularly post-colonial attitude concerned with respect for aborigine cultures and criticism of cultural appropriation and co-option. And to be fair, America is still learning about this issue event today, as seen for example in the post-colonialist backlash against Taylor Swift's "Wildest Dreams" music video.

    As for beliefs about the dominant culture's superiority… Agreed, I think you'll find this attitude quite common all over the world.

  7. Chelsea Hall said,

    November 25, 2015 @ 8:59 am

    I think it's important to understand the context, otherwise aren't we being fairly condescending in pointing out obvious errors but not looking to understand the cause? There's a practical explanation for this: the Chinese university system is not set up to produce bilingual English-Tibetan speakers nor trilingual Tibetan-Chinese-English speakers.

    I too enjoy the philological ramifications of all this, but although A to C translation is an ideal worth striving for, and is accepted translation industry standard (ideally with C/target language being your native one), it's not currently possible for the majority of educated Tibetans. One of the most popular "tracks" or majors for Tibetan students is translation between Tibetan and Chinese, with the intended career outcome of producing government employees who can make such signs…which are of course translated into English using Baidu or some sort of machine translation from the Chinese.

    It's an objective and unfortunate fact that there is a paucity of Eng>Tib translation software, dictionaries, etc., but a great proliferation of Chi>Tib tools available in China. It's also worth mentioning that such obvious errors in the Tibetan spelling also point to a low level of Tibetan literacy, which was more common in the previous (read: older) generations of government employees, who focused on being literate in Chinese rather than Tibetan. The generation graduating from university these days generally has a higher level of Tibetan literacy (due to Tibetan literacy becoming a relatively valuable asset to job seekers in the market), but English is still not taught well nor stressed in the curriculum even at the university level.

  8. Bathrobe said,

    November 25, 2015 @ 6:12 pm

    There’s a practical explanation for this: the Chinese university system is not set up to produce bilingual English-Tibetan speakers nor trilingual Tibetan-Chinese-English speakers….It's an objective and unfortunate fact that there is a paucity of Eng>Tib translation software, dictionaries, etc., but a great proliferation of Chi>Tib tools available in China.

    Which is exactly the problem. The whole system was set up to serve Chinese and not other languages. It is politically and ethnically biased.

  9. Eidolon said,

    November 30, 2015 @ 1:02 pm

    @Bathrobe I think her argument is that it seems arbitrary to ask a country to set up bilingual education in *English*. The official language of the PRC is Mandarin Chinese; minority languages are also taught. But minority-English bilingual education is scarce, because English is not the official language of the PRC and also isn't a minority language. That it's taught at all in Chinese schools is due to globalization. No reason to accuse the Chinese of political and ethnic bias over lacking English-Tibetan translators.

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