No such thing

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A Reuters article of March 30, 2017 has the title " China says 'no such thing' as man-made islands in South China Sea".  Upon reading this headline, the world asked, "Have the Chinese gone completely out of their mind?"  For the last couple of years, we have watched China building these bases at a feverish pace, and they have been documented from airplanes and satellites.  How could the Chinese baldly say to the world that there is " 'no such thing' as man-made islands in Southeast Asia Sea"?

When I first read the Reuters article, something seemed fishy about the "no such thing", which is accentuated with single quotation marks in the headline and double quotation marks in the first sentence of the article itself.

I tried to imagine where could this locution possibly have come from in a Chinese statement on the subject.  Did the spokesman say something like méiyǒu zhè huí shì 没有这回事, which Google Translate nicely renders as "no such thing", and which someone who is brazenly lying to the whole world might well say.

Let's go back to the original Chinese transcript of the March 30 Ministry of National Defense press conference where the spokesman, Senior Colonel Wu Qian, is quoted thus:

Dì yī, bù cúnzài shénme “réngōng dǎojiāo” de wèntí. Dì èr, Nánshā Qúndǎo shì Zhōngguó gùyǒu lǐngtǔ, Zhōngguó zài zìjǐ de guótǔ shàng shìfǒu gǎo jiànshè, gǎo hé zhǒng jiànshè, zěnyàng gǎo jiànshè, wánquán shì Zhōngguó zhǔquán fànwéi nèi de shìqíng.

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。

The official Ministry of National Defense translation reads:

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.

I will not interrogate the translation of the markedly in-your-face assertions of the second and third sentences, but will focus intensively on the first sentence, which caused such an uproar:  "there is no 'man-made' islands".

The first problem is that the singular verb "is" and the plural subject "islands" lack agreement.

Second, the English translation doesn't account for the following elements of the Chinese sentence, which amount to more than half:

a. bù cúnzài 不存在 ("doesn't exist")

b. shénme 什么 ("what[ever]", etc.)

c. de wèntí 的问题 ("question of")

Third, the quotation marks in the English are around “man-made”, but in the original Chinese they are around “réngōng dǎojiāo 人工岛礁” ("man-made island reefs").

Fourth, the Chinese original makes reference to "dǎojiāo 岛礁" ("island reefs"), but the English translation just refers to them as "islands".

For there to be so many flaws is such a short and not very complicated sentence demonstrates breathtaking ineptitude on the part of the translator.  The result is not quite Chinglish, but it is borderline Chinglish and highly unprofessional for an official government translator.  Moreover, since the question of whether or not China is building military bases in the territorial waters of other nations is highly controversial and fraught with delicate, contentious issues that might well erupt in a hot war, extreme caution and care should be taken in the translation of such public statements emanating from the government, in particular the Ministry of National Defense.

Whether or not what Senior Colonel Wu Qian said in Chinese makes sense and is truthful is one thing, but to distort his words through mistranslation is positively dangerous and alarming.

Putting the parts all back together again, here's the original Chinese statement:

bù cúnzài shénme “réngōng dǎojiāo” de wèntí


The official translation from the Ministry of National Defense:

there is no “man-made” islands

A more accurate translation starting from scratch:

the question / problem of so-called "artificial / man-made island reefs" does not exist

From this, we can see that the official English translation from the Ministry of National Defense completely misconstrued Senior Colonel Wu's statement.  Exactly what he meant by "The question / problem of so-called 'artificial / man-made island reefs' does not exist" is hard enough to comprehend even in the original Chinese or when translated accurately.  To render it as "there is no 'man-made' islands" simply makes a mockery of whatever it was he was really trying to say.

Finally, the most difficult part of Senior Colonel Wu's statement to express in English is the seemingly inconsequential, offhand, subtle, but ever so common "shénme 什么".  This usually means "what; something; anything", but before a noun or noun phrase — as here (réngōng dǎojiāo 人工岛礁 ["man-made island reefs"] — can convey the sense of "such a thing as", "would-be", "putative", "supposed", etc.  Senior Colonel Wu's labeling the "'réngōng dǎojiāo 人工岛礁'" ("'man-made island reefs'") — already in scare quotation marks, as if to say "alleged; so-called" — as "shénme 什么" is strongly dismissive and serves to emphasize his assertion that the "'réngōng dǎojiāo 人工岛礁'" ("'man-made island reefs'") aren't really what China's opponents claim they are (that's his opinion).  Hence his curt declaration that the the question / problem / issue of so-called "artificial / man-made island reefs" simply does not exist.  It's all in the mind of China's enemies.

As for where the "no such thing" in the Reuters report comes from, it seems to me that it is an attempt to repair part of the badly failed Ministry of National Defense translation.  It actually matches the "(neg.) shénme 什么" ("[there is no] such [thing]") construction fairly well.

As for objective reality, whether or not those island reefs in the ocean truly exist (cúnzài 存在) and whether or not they are artificial / man-made, only God can tell (for those who believe in Him / Her), since China does not accept the ruling of the International Tribunal (7/12/16) in favor of the Philippines.  For Senior Colonel Wu and his associates in the Chinese government, the very question / problem / issue of those "man-made / artificial island reefs" just does not exist.  He's craftily / cleverly / deceptively (so he thinks) avoiding the palpable existence of those military bases that China has built on coral reefs in the Southeast Asia Sea by playing with words.  He believes that he is a worthy scion of the imaginary Master Sun, alleged author of China's Art of War.

The Art of War:  Sun Zi's Military Methods (Columbia University Press, 2007).

See:  "Victor Mair on the Art of War" (8/7/08)

It's all about deception.  Build a bunch of military bases on artificial islands in the ocean in the territorial waters of other nations and then declare that the question / problem / issue (of their existence) does not exist.  It's all about word games.  Get it?

[h.t. Bill Benzon]


  1. FM said,

    April 4, 2017 @ 2:55 pm

    How about "so-called 'man-made islands'"?

  2. Victor Mair said,

    April 4, 2017 @ 3:40 pm

    Mark Metcalf has called to my attention a paper that he came across while doing a study on PRC military ethics for a conference last year. It discusses the way that the English translation of the 2013 Defense White Paper was tailored to specifically appeal to English language readers. He found the explanation of the process fascinating, and so do I. It's really interesting to see how much attention they pay to the translation process — the way it comes across in English.

    Cóng 2013 nián zhōngguó guófáng báipíshū de Yīng yì kàn Zhōngguó dāngdài jūnshì lúnlǐ de kuàyǔ chuánbò

    Zhèng Zhēn, Zhāng Lìpíng, Hǎo Lìhuá

    (Jiěfàngjūn Lǐgōng dàxué Lǐxué yuàn wàiyǔ jiàoyán zhōngxīn, Jiāngsū Nánjīng 211101)

    Zhāiyào: Zhōngguó dāngdài jūnshì lúnlǐ kuàyǔ chuánbò de yǒuxiào tújìng shì xuéxí hé jièjiàn guójì huàyǔ tǐxì, bìng yǐ Zhōngguó dāngdài jūnshì lúnlǐ sīxiǎng wèi gēnběn, yǐ yìwén de chuánbò hé jiēshòu xiàoguǒ wéi zhòng.

    Guānjiàn cí: Zhōngguó guófáng; Yīng yì; Zhōngguó dāngdài jūnshì lúnlǐ

    从 2013 年中国国防白皮书的英译看 中国当代军事伦理的跨语传播

    郑 贞 张丽平 郝丽华

    ( 解放军理工大学 理学院外语教研中心,江苏 南京 211101)

    摘 要: 中国当代军事伦理跨语传播的有效途径是学习和借鉴国际话语体系,并以中国当代军事 伦理思想为根本,以译文的传播和接受效果为重。
    关键词: 中国国防; 英译; 中国当代军事伦理

    On the Transmission of the Chinese Contemporary Military Ethics from the Translation of 2013 China’s National Defense White Paper

    ZHENG Zhen ZHANG Li-ping HAO Li-hua
    Abstract: The translation of the Chinese contemporary military ethics embodied in China’s National

    Defense White Paper should focus on its effects and the readers’acceptance.
    Key words: China’s national defense; translation; the Chinese contemporary military ethics

  3. 번하드 said,

    April 4, 2017 @ 3:55 pm

    Ahaha, I saw that post coming after having read
    I don't know if you're in contact with that post's author?

    BTW, their April fools thing was my personal favourite this year:

  4. MattF said,

    April 4, 2017 @ 4:56 pm

    @Victor Mair

    Your comment suggests that the original statement in Chinese and the 'translation' into English really ought to be regarded as two different, although obviously related, passages. Your sense that the 'translation' is a more aggressive statement is probably valid and probably done intentionally.

    This may be a case of the 'nerdview' problem– as someone who is deeply invested in the idea that translations must convey the same meaning as the original, you may be misconstruing what's going on here.

  5. Filter Fodder said,

    April 4, 2017 @ 8:24 pm

    I'm a beginner at Mandarin, but isn't it possible that he meant


    , i.e. "a so-called problem of man-made islands".

  6. Simon P said,

    April 5, 2017 @ 12:45 am

    @Filter Fodder
    That is indeed the way I would parse it. "This so-called problem of 'artificial island reefs' doesn't exist."

    @ Prof. MairWould it be conspiratorial to see it as a way to make international media make a lot of fuss about something which will seem to the Chinese people not to be a very provocative statement?

  7. Martin Ball said,

    April 5, 2017 @ 1:42 am

    Isn't the 'reef' part important? The reefs are not man made, but the islands sitting on the reefs are?

  8. David Marjanović said,

    April 5, 2017 @ 5:38 am

    Isn't the 'reef' part important?

    I bet it is!

    "You're saying the islands are manmade? What? That's silly. The reefs aren't manmade."

  9. flow said,

    April 5, 2017 @ 2:33 pm

    @MattF I'm afraid you're wrong. Did you click through the links to the MOD pages? That's one page in Chinese, one in English, both by and on the domain of the PRC Ministry of Defense. The English, importantly, has this text near the top:

    "Senior Colonel Wu Qian: Dear friends from the media, good afternoon! Welcome to this month’s regular press conference of the Ministry of National Defense of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) on this spring day.

    Today also present here are friends from a seminar on spokesperson’s training organized by the Communication University of China (CUC). Thank you for coming!

    I have two announcements to make at the beginning."

    This is clearly and beyond doubt (intended to be understood as) an official translation of what SCol Wu said, and the text style makes it clear from the outset that this is (intended to be read as) no report, no comment, no interpretation, no op ed, but a faithful, by-the-word translation into English what was said there in that room by SCol Wu. It should also be clear that in this kind of setting, should there be discrepancies between the two languages, the Chinese will have to be given priority, and the English must be regarded as faulty (lacking, erroneous).

    It is simply not conceivable that the PRC could intentionally try to send message A to the English speaking world while providing a 对照 (juxtaposited?) version B written in Chinese that is substantially different. Why? Because millions of people can readily read both languages and spot the difference. This isn't a case of nerdview—a translation is a translation. And, as Prof Mair pointed out, the translation's problems start right with the scare quotes, already in the journalist's question:

    记者:… 中国在南海最大的3个“人工岛礁”上…
    Question: …on the three biggest “man-made” islands in the South China Sea…

    Answer: On your first question, I’d like to stress four points. Firstly, there is no “man-made” islands.

    It's not quite clear to me how the quotes made it into the Chinese questions and answer, but one could imagine that the journalists have to submit their questions prior to the event, in the written; it is also conceivable that they get edited or have to adapt them so they get answered at all. Maybe the journalist made air quotes, who knows. But the interesting detail here is that those quotes are rendered incorrectly in the English translation, and that that infidelity is right next to three other faults ('islands' instead of '(island) reefs', rendering of '不存在什么x的问题' as 'no x', and 'there is no xs' instead of 'there are no xs'. Maybe somewhat tried to diligently fix (?) the passage and bungled it.

  10. DWalker07 said,

    April 5, 2017 @ 5:24 pm

    I think the post is saying that the Chinese spokesman says that there is not any PROBLEM related to whatever they are, or are not, building in the South China Sea.

    Did I get that right? Some of the comments seem to gloss over that interpretation.

    That is, the Chinese can be building something there, and it's not a problem.

  11. John Swindle said,

    April 5, 2017 @ 10:55 pm

    DWalker07: Yes. In the first place there's no such problem, and in the second place it's their sacred soil and they can do whatever they want to, so there.

  12. flow said,

    April 6, 2017 @ 2:36 am

    @MattF—this is most certainly *not* a nerdview problem. When you click through to the PRC MOD website, you'll see what is intended to be understood as detailed and verbatim from-the-mouth-to-the-letter renderings of what was said by SCol Wu at the occasion, including his introductory words.

    Conspicuously, there are no less than four faults in the English when compared to the Chinese version all gathered around those slightly misplaced quotes. It looks like someone wanted to improve the English version in that spot and left a few erasure smudges on the paper in the process, as it were. Millions of people can readily compare the two versions and make out the discrepancies, so that is a bad place for some propaganda task force to second-guess a high official's words and alter them ever so slightly just so an English-speaking audience gets a tailored message. Especially since Wu's words do sound like they are hedged so as to avoid the impression of an all-out lie to start with.

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