Almost Lost in Translation

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In our numerous posts on Chinglish here at Language Log, we have shown how unintentional errors of translation from Chinese result in ludicrous or impenetrable English.  In this post, I shall demonstrate how translations from English into Chinese can (and often do) intentionally differ from the original.

On March 15, 2010, Nicholas Wade published a long article entitled "A Host of Mummies, a Forest of Secrets" in the Science section of The New York Times.  Mr. Wade interviewed me extensively during the course of preparing the article, so I am intimately familiar with the issues he raised in it and am, in fact, quoted several times by him.

Shortly thereafter, one of China’s most widely read weeklies, Southern Metropolis Weekly (Nándū zhōukān 南都周刊), published a Chinese "translation" of the NYT article entitled "Invisible Cemetery" (Kànbùjiàn de mùdì 看不见的墓地).  It is now available online here.

Since Nicholas Wade's name is listed as the author and the name of the "translator-editor" (biānyì 编译), Pān Tíng 潘婷, also appears, we are given to understand that what the Southern Metropolis Weekly (SMW) published was indeed meant to be taken as a translation of an article by Nicholas Wade.  Where Wade's article was originally published is not mentioned, a point that I shall take up again below.

On April 2, Bruce Humes, a writer and media analyst who lives in Shenzhen (just north of Hong Kong), issued on his blog a fascinating critique of the SMW "translation" of Mr. Wade's piece; he called it "Fine-tuning the Spin: Xinjiang’s Awkward Not-so-Chinese Mummies."

Mr. Humes did not consult with me ahead of time, so his extraordinary analysis was carried out entirely by himself.  He explains his modus operandi thus:


To show English speakers how potentially controversial news like this is presented to the Chinese public, I run the entire online version of the New York Times article below.  I then “edit” it to mirror the final Chinese edition: Additions made in the final Chinese version from Southern Metropolis Weekly are [in brackets], while copy that has been deleted is crossed out.


Here are some of Humes'  chief findings:


The Chinese translation reads well, and through judicious editing, gives a rather different spin to the piece:

* “Riots in Urumqi” has been deleted
* References to the intense controversy between the Uighurs and the Han about the cultural and racial origins of the mummies have been completely deleted at the beginning, and subsequent references are positioned as differences of opinion among experts;
* The name of Dr. Victor Mair, an expert on Tarim Basin pre-history,  is deleted twice early in the translation, although he is quoted at length later. The edited copy leaves the reader with the impression that Mair has an informed opinion about the significance of the site, but his actual role in translating much of the scholarship surrounding it is not evident;
* The word “Uighur” occurs three times in the original, but just once in the Chinese version, and the reference to the Uighur’s claim that the Xinjiang “autonomous region was always theirs” has been deleted;
* The Chinese version highlights the “obsession with procreation” of this mysterious people whose remains have been unearthed on Chinese soil.


In private correspondence of April 2 to me, Bruce Humes provided some additional analysis that attempts to explain the motivation for certain departures in the Chinese version from the English original.  In the first place, SMW studiously omitted any mention of the NYT as being the place where Nicholas Wade's article was published.  According to Humes, "…they have struck out the reference to the New York Times, yet left the writer's name. My guess: They do not plan to pay the NYT copyright, but want to appear 'professional' by noting the original author."

He continues, "They struck out your name when the original referred to your role in translating related scholarship. This is understandable in that Chinese readers don't 'need' to know about that; but of course, more subtly, this also positions you as an opinionated Western scholar whose views may — or may not — be substantiated by in-depth research. More tellingly, your name is first cited when you inadvertently praise the Chinese point of view ('a believable analysis'). That works to lend credibility to Chinese scholarship. Overall, you are cited in some detail and your views are not misrepresented, so I don't see any untoward agenda here. Just a Foreign Expert Serving the People!"

I personally find rather odd some of the changes made by the Chinese "translator-editor."  For instance, she rewrites thus:


They had felt caps with feathers tucked in the brim, [from which it can be deduced that they may have been Tyrolean] uncannily resembling Tyrolean mountain hats. They wore large woolen capes with tassels and leather boots. A Bronze Age salesclerk from Victoria’s Secret seems to have supplied the clothes beneath — barely adequate woolen loin cloths for the men, and skirts made of string strands for the women.


Nicholas Wade had faithfully followed my characterization of the felt headgear of the mummies as "resembling Tyrolean mountain hats," whereas Pan Ting takes a much further and bolder leap by saying that "they may have been Tyrolean."  I am always very careful to avoid such speculative claims, even though media people constantly try to get me to do so.

As for Mr. Wade's titillating reference to Victoria's Secret, it would seem that Ms. Pan had never heard of this lingerie line, didn't comprehend the humor, or thought it was too risque for her dignified "translation."

One of the most controversial aspects of the original NYT article is its discussion of the genetics of the mummies.  I am on record as being of the opinion that the 2007 study carried out by Felix (Li) JIN of Fudan University in Shanghai was flawed in emphasizing that there were East Asian and even South Asian markers in the genetic component of the Beauty of Loulan, one of the earliest of the Bronze Age Caucasoid mummies unearthed in East Central Asia.  See Megan Shank, "China's DNA Debate:  How remains of the first emperor's workers fuel a modern political controversy," Archaeology, 62.4 (July-August, 2009), 44-47.

It is ironic that both Li JIN and I were co-authors of the other genetics paper mentioned in the NYT article, namely the one published in BMC Biology on 17 February 2010 (8:15doi:10.1186/1741-7007-8-15) and entitled "Evidence that a West-East admixed population lived in the Tarim Basin as early as the early Bronze Age." Naturally, I approve of the findings in this paper, which are quite at odds with the 2007 study of Li JIN et al.  The BMC Biology paper lists a baker's dozen of authors, Chunxiang LI, et al., with Hui ZHOU the lead author named last.  The composition of the group of co-authors is interesting.  There is one Uyghur, Idelisi Abuduresule (Idris Abdursul); all the rest are Han Chinese, except for me, the lone foreigner.  Idris is the former director of the Institute of Archeology in Ürümchi, Zhi XU and Li JIN are from Fudan University in Shanghai, and all the rest are from Jilin University in Changchun, Jilin Province (part of old Manchuria).  It is curious that Pan Ting, the translator-editor, omits Li JIN's name in connection with the BMC Biology paper, whereas Nicholas Wade had given it together with that of Hui ZHOU.

On April 29, Xinhua English News published an article entitled "Xinjiang discovery provides intriguing DNA link" which features an interview with Hui ZHOU.  The article also includes the following distorted paragraph about me:


Professor Victor Mair of Pennsylvania University claimed in 2006, "From around 1800 B.C. the earliest mummies in the Tarim Basin were exclusively Caucasoid, or Europoid," after he studied DNA samples derived from five bodies unearthed in the basin.


This makes it seem as though I was basing my statement about the earliest mummies in the Tarim Basin on genetic analysis, when, in fact, I was describing their physical appearance, and was also relying on the physical anthropological research of Han Kangxin at the Institute of Archeology (Chinese Academy of Social Sciences).

It would seem, then, that I've been semi-rehabilitated.  I was permitted to participate in the research and writing of the important BMC Biology paper published in February of this year, but otherwise remain invisible, except as a foil.

And what does all of this have to do with language?  It tells us that translation, which is a linguistic act, may — in certain circumstances — serve as the handmaiden to politics and ideology.

[Thanks are due to Nicholas Wade and Heather Pringle for quickly calling Bruce Hume's fine piece to my attention, and to Mark Bender for telling me about the April 29 Xinhua News item.  It was only my own dilatoriness that prevented me from posting this earlier.]


  1. Reinhold {Rey} Aman said,

    May 24, 2010 @ 3:45 am

    @ Prof. Mair: Your excellent post and Nicholas Wade's article in the NYT are fascinating. I do wonder, however, whether Mr. Wade has ever seen a genuine Tyrolean hat, because he wrote, "They [the mummies] had felt caps with feathers tucked in the brim, uncannily resembling Tyrolean mountain hats." (But see below.)

    Uncannily? Tyrolean? The cap worn by the Beauty of Xiaohe doesn't look at all like a Tyrolean hat. In addition, Tyrolean feathers are not tucked in the brim but in a ribbon above the brim. I know what a Tiroler Hut looks like, because my father and I used to wear such hats and we often traveled to Tyrol. Searching Google Images for "Tyrolean hat" or "Tiroler Hut" will also show you a variety of Tyrolean hats.

    Since we're here at Language Log (a.k.a. Nitpick Central), three more comments: Translator-editor Pan Ting's wild extrapolation from Wade's "Tyrolean mountain hats" that the people "may have been Tyrolean" is simply ludicrous.

    I'm aware that Mr. Wade faithfully followed your characterization of the felt headgear of the mummies as "resembling Tyrolean mountain hats," as you pointed out, but by gratuitously adding that they uncannily resemble those hats, he made your comparison worse.

    And finally (asking with a grin), what exactly is a "Tyrolean mountain hat"? Is it different from a regular Tyrolean hat? And are there "Tyrolean valley hats"? (Yup, Google has nine hits.)

  2. Ginger Yellow said,

    May 24, 2010 @ 4:10 am

    "As for Mr. Wade's titillating reference to Victoria's Secret, it would seem that Ms. Pan had never heard of this lingerie line, didn't comprehend the humor, or thought it was too risque for her dignified "translation.""

    Surely it's just a reference that would be lost on most Chinese readers, so it was cut out? Some of the other editing/censorship was clearly politically motivated, but this just seems like straightforward 95% rule editing.

  3. Daan said,

    May 24, 2010 @ 4:36 am

    I should really see if my local university library has a copy of your book on the mummies of the Tarim Basin. I recall they were discussed here at Language Log earlier as well. A fascinating subject.

    Is the exhibition mentioned going to be travelling to Europe? I apologise if this information is available online, but I cannot seem to find it anywhere.

  4. Nightstallion said,

    May 24, 2010 @ 6:06 am

    As an Austrian, I can only QFT Reinhold's comment.

  5. J. Goard said,

    May 24, 2010 @ 8:10 am

    In addition, Tyrolean feathers are not tucked in the brim but in a ribbon above the brim.

    Googling "tucked in the brim":

    Wow, a friggin lot of people use "brim" to mean the hatband.

  6. James said,

    May 24, 2010 @ 8:16 am

    Regarding their not giving credit to the New York Times: In Australian newspapers, I've seen NYT articles reprinted, with the author's name, but without mentioning the NYT. I don't know why, but I doubt it's to get around a law requiring the payment of copyright.

  7. Victor Mair said,

    May 24, 2010 @ 8:39 am

    Reinhold and Nightstallion,

    I did not use the term "Tyrolean mountain hat" and the adverb "uncannily"; those are Mr. Wade's characterizations. I think I called them "Alpine hats (from the Tyrol)" when I was talking to him. If you want to know more about the comparisons I have made between the Bronze Age Tarim Basin felt, peaked hats with cord wrapped around them and a feather tucked in at the side, check out the latest (May) issue of Orientations (published in Hong Kong) for this article by me: "Stylish Hats and Sumptuous Garments from Bronze Age and Iron Age Eastern Central Asia."

    I own a Tyrolean hat (that is what we call them in English; what do you call them in Italian? — they're also seen prominently in the area around Bolzano / Bozen [South Tyrol]) from my father's village of Pfaffenhofen, which is 22 km. west of Innsbruck and across the Inn River from Telfs, so I do know what a Tyrolean hat looks like, and I also know what the felt, peaked, cord-wrapped, feather-decorated Bronze Age and Early Iron Age Tarim Basin hats look like, having studied them closely since the mid-1990s.,_Tyrol


    For the schedule of the exhibition in which you will be able to see first-hand the felt hats we're talking about, read the 3rd paragraph here:
    This exhibition will not be traveling to Europe.

  8. Victor Mair said,

    May 24, 2010 @ 9:03 am

    Nicholas Wade has a British accent, so perhaps part of the problem is, as J. Goard suggests, a difference between the meaning of "brim" in British English and in American English.

  9. arthur waldron said,

    May 24, 2010 @ 10:17 am

    The degree to which Han chauvinism is enforced even in the presentation of science is very worrying. I think of the Turkish "history" promoted by Ataturk, but this is many times more serious.

  10. Ralph Hickok said,

    May 24, 2010 @ 3:26 pm

    Had I been an editor at the NYT, I would have cut the reference to Victoria's Secret as being an overreaching and failed attempt at humor.

  11. Miriam said,

    May 24, 2010 @ 7:38 pm

    "As for Mr. Wade's titillating reference to Victoria's Secret, it would seem that Ms. Pan had never heard of this lingerie line, didn't comprehend the humor, or thought it was too risque for her dignified "translation.""

    Following Ginger Yellow's comment about this line, there is also another possibility — unlike the NYTimes, perhaps Chinese media isn't quite so free in giving publicity to western companies.

  12. Alexandra said,

    May 24, 2010 @ 8:41 pm

    Here's what really puzzles me:

    "There are no [many] known settlements near the cemetery, so the people probably lived elsewhere and reached the cemetery by boat."

    "Burials with felt hats and woven baskets were [became] common in the region until some 2,000 years ago."

    Is this just incompetent translation or what?

  13. Nanani said,

    May 25, 2010 @ 12:19 am

    Not to mention:

    …"division is based on the words for hundred [the pronunciation of several hundred words] in Latin (centum) and in Sanskrit (satam)."

    Incomptence or malice? Why would this change be made, if deliberate and not a mistake?

  14. Dan Lufkin said,

    May 25, 2010 @ 10:46 am

    Just a wee bit off-topic: I wonder whether the name of the official Chinese news agency, Xinhua, is a deliberate macaronic pun on the French chinois. How does Xinhua break down?

  15. Daan said,

    May 25, 2010 @ 12:41 pm

    xīn is the first syllable of that word, huá the second. I don't think it sounds like the French word chinois.

    The news agency is referred to as Xīnhuáshè in Mandarin, which is short for Xīnhuá Tōngxùnshè 'New China News Agency'. You can listen to some example sentences containing the word Xīnhuáshè here.

  16. msm said,

    May 25, 2010 @ 9:38 pm


    "Here's what really puzzles me:

    "There are no [many] known settlements near the cemetery, so the people probably lived elsewhere and reached the cemetery by boat."

    "Burials with felt hats and woven baskets were [became] common in the region until some 2,000 years ago."

    Is this just incompetent translation or what?"

    > Actually if you go to his blog he states that he mistranslated the translation

    "In fact, one of the two discrepancies you note was arguably caused by me as I retranslated it. Pan Ting rendered “There are no known settlements near the cemetery” as 在墓地附近依然有很多未知的定居点. This is incorrect, but my “version” of her rendition is also flawed (There are [many] known settlements near the cemetery). "

  17. Jacob said,

    May 28, 2010 @ 8:58 am

    Readers of 南方周末 or 南都周刊 would most likely be familiar with Victoria's Secret. There's the official Victoria's Secret China website plus I've seen clips of their annual lingerie shows on CCTV.

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