Intentional mistranslation?

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Photograph accompanying Jun Mai, "Why Beijing isn’t Marxist enough for China’s radical millennials:  President Xi Jinping may have called for a recommitment to Karl Marx’s ideology, but excuse some young Marxists if they are a little sceptical", SCMP (5/24/18):

Can't complain about the first line, but the English translation of the second line is a pale reflection of what the Chinese actually says:

Wěidà gémìng dǎoshī Mǎkèsī de zhuànglì rénshēng


"The great revolutionary mentor / teacher / tutor Marx's magnificent / majestic / glorious life."

Here is an instance where the machine translators all do a better job than the human translator.  I suspect that the human translator was afraid the effusive praise of Marx would not have sounded quite right to innocent foreigner ears, so tamed it down drastically.  Yet the truncated, watered down version we are left with mentions Marx's writings, which are nowhere to be seen in the Chinese original.

[h.t. Mark Metcalf]


  1. Arthur Waldron said,

    May 25, 2018 @ 1:33 pm

    Marx died ten years before Mao was born. Somehow I think his life and work are not the ideological Geritol the neuralgic old PRC needs. Furthermore read literally his works are both an accurate description and powerful condemnation of the PRC. China in any case fell on the cutting room floor and ended up his laughable theory of The Asiatic Mode of Production. Which is an insult to China. Mao’s explicit endorsement of democracy in his November 1945 responses to the Reuters correspondent were too subversive to be included in the Chinese edition of his Collected Works though now on Baidu. Were I Xi I would. Be careful to keep the Communist Manifesto away from inquiring minds. ANW

  2. Alyssa said,

    May 25, 2018 @ 2:06 pm

    Are museum exhibit titles in China usually so effusive? This is just a guess, but it seems like the translator may also be accounting for cultural differences in how things are titled.

    "The Power of Truth: The Life and Works of Marx" is a pretty typical structure for an exhibit title – the first half is poetic and unrestrained, the second half is bland and practical.

    A more faithful translation like "The Power of Truth: The Great Revolutionary Teacher Marx's Glorious Life" sounds… unprofessional. But perhaps that's true to the original as well?

  3. RP said,

    May 25, 2018 @ 2:49 pm

    It strikes me that it ought to have been possible to stick a bit closer to the spirit of the original without sounding ridiculous. Something along the lines of "Marx: The Extraordinary Life of a Revolutionary"?

  4. GH said,

    May 25, 2018 @ 4:28 pm

    Does "works" necessarily mean writings? I feel you could read it more as "achievements", which then starts to suggests something of the grandeur of the Chinese title.

    TBH I'm more bothered by the typesetting than by any liberties taken in the translation.

  5. Eidolon said,

    May 30, 2018 @ 4:42 pm

    "Furthermore read literally his works are both an accurate description and powerful condemnation of the PRC."

    The PRC promotes Marx mostly for his condemnation of private ownership, market capitalism, and religion, which they can argue that they don't practice: the biggest enterprises in China are all owned by the state, as is all real estate, either directly or through rural communes; they employ a state directed form of capitalism that, though it eschews much of the traditional central panning strategies of Communist states, still depends heavily on five years plans and market manipulation; and of course, the party is officially atheist. Contrary to the popular joke that the PRC is more capitalist than the US, I'd actually consider them an evolved form of the Marxist-Leninist state, which has adapted to the practical principles of the world economy and materialism, but which has nonetheless maintained near total control over the means of production.

    But of course, there are aspects of Marxism that the PRC definitively down plays, ignores, or contradicts: egalitarianism, democracy, and the struggle against nationalism. The excuse used by party ideologues would be that the PRC is currently in the transition stage envisioned as the dictatorship of the proletariat by Weydemeyer, and thus, must make compromises. Yet it cannot be ignored that the party has been moving away from explicit endorsements of the Marxist end of history – the elimination of the state, social classes, and property ownership altogether – and is substituting, in its place, a form of Chinese nationalism based on the promise of national rejuvenation. Marxism and nationalism are, however, contradictory philosophies, and in theory, this contradiction must be resolved – eventually.

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