BLM in Chinese

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The whole world knows about BLM (Black Lives Matter). Native speakers of English (at least American English — I can't vouch for other varieties) instinctively know what the innately idiomatic intransitive verb "matter" means in this construction. But, even for native speakers, it's not easy to define in one word. I suppose, in the expression "Black Lives Matter" it means something like "are of consequence / importance". Yet, if we reworded the slogan as "Black Lives Are of Consequence / Importance" or "Black Lives Are Important / Consequential", it would lose its impact, its zing.

Pondering all of these aspects of the movement's name, I often wondered how "matter" could be felicitously rendered in Chinese. To tell the truth, though, I didn't spend much time on trying to come up with a good translation, because nothing readily came to mind — until this morning when Diana Shuheng Zhang told me she was dissatisfied with the translation that she was most familiar with and appalled by its underlying racism: "Hēi mìng guì 黑命贵" ("Black Lives Are Expensive / Costly" — that's a raw, crude, literal translation of the last word, which can also be interpreted to mean "Important / Valuable"). Diana said that it sounds too crass and materialistic, and I would have to agree with her. She further says that this is blatant Chinese racism, reflecting perhaps not Chinese xenophobia but more of the Chinese willingness / initiative to be merged with supremacists — be they white (who have already “attained” supremacy in many repects), or Chinese themselves (who are yet “striving” for supremacy, at least ideologically!).

In strict linguistic terms, referring back to this post, Diana made an argument about the pursuit of equisyllabicity in the Chinese context, especially trisyllabicity when it comes to propagandistic and popularization purposes.  She recognizes the Chinese intention of using a trisyllabic phrase to represent an English slogan that has three words in it, in addition to the long-standing trisyllabic Chinese tradition of making things widespread, e.g., the Sānzì Jīng 三字经 (Three Character Classic or Trimetric Classic), probably dating to the 13th century.

Diana further says:

However, there are so many good trisyllabic translations of “Black Lives Matters”, especially regarding “matters”. Perhaps, Hēi mìng zhòng 黑命重 (“Black Lives are Weighty”)?  This is at least MUCH better compared to "Hēi mìng guì 黑命贵" ("Black Lives Are Expensive / Costly") — the guì 贵 ("expensive / costly") in which is almost always and only tied to the value of OBJECTS rather than human beings in the modern Mandarin context, reminding its readers of the proverbially dark and heartbreaking history of the fates of African people, which one cannot even bear to mention once more. A defender who contrives a word-play should NOT emphasize how something like "Mèngzǐ yuē: 'Mín wéi guì, shèjì cì zhī, jūn wèi qīng' 孟子曰:'民为贵,社稷次之,君为轻'” ("Mencius said, 'The people are the most important element in a nation; the spirits of the land and grain are the next; the sovereign is the lightest'" [James Legge tr.]) has been used in pre-Han contexts such as Mèngzǐ 孟子 (Mencius); now we are talking about 21st-century Mandarin Chinese and its propagation among general, non-elitist-literary readers!!

Here's another proposed translation: Black Lives Are Also Lives — "Hēi mìng yì mìng 黑命亦命". Remember, tetrasyllabic phrases are also prevalent for traditional Chinese propaganda!!!

Let's compare "Hēi mìng guì 黑命贵" ("Black Lives Are Expensive / Costly") with other currently circulating translations of "Black Lives Matter":

“Hēirén de mìng yěshì mìng 黑人的命也是命” ("Black People's Lives Are Also Lives") 906,000 ghits

“Hēirén de mìng hěn zhòngyào 黑人的命很重要” ("Black People's Lives Are Very Important") 77,100 ghits

"Hēirén xìngmìng yōuguān 黑人性命攸關" ("Black People's Lives Are at Stake") 4,480 ghits

“Hēi mìng yōuguān 黑命攸关" ("Black Lives Are at Stake") 11,500 ghits

"Hēi mìng guāntiān 黑命關天" ("Black Lives Are Linked to Heaven") 9,940 ghits

“Hēi mìng guì 黑命贵” ("Black Lives Are Expensive / Costly") 1,180,000 ghits — by far the most popular translation

The first is cumbersome and grossly tautological, the second is simplistically prosaic, and all the others are just blah one way or another.

If someone asked me to come up with something better than all of the above, I would proffer "Hēi mìng yàojǐn 黑命要紧" ("Black Lives Are Important"), which only garners 488 ghits, showing that it is not an established translation. It's also not very eye-catching.

How do the Japanese handle the problem of the translation of "Black Lives Matter" in their language?

Burakku raivuzu matā ブラック・ライヴズ・マター


  1. Terry K. said,

    January 12, 2021 @ 12:29 pm

    I can't vouch for the Chinese, but for the English translations, I feel like the first, "Black People's Lives Are Also Lives" comes closest to the point. I don't see it as grossly tautological. The tautology is the point. Black lives should be given the value of other lives, because black lives are lives.

    The last one, which you indicate is most common, with adding in the sense of "valuable" that doesn't come through in the literal English translation, does I think work well.

  2. Stephen said,

    January 12, 2021 @ 12:59 pm

    Very old joke, from my grandfather or quite possibly an older generation:

    "What's matter?"
    "Never mind."
    "What's mind?"
    "Doesn't matter."

    I suspect that translating that into Chinese may not be entirely straightforward.

    Or indeed, into some forms of American.

  3. Philip Taylor said,

    January 12, 2021 @ 1:10 pm

    I am with Terry K here — for me, as for him, "Black lives are also lives" appears to sum up the very quintessence of what the phrase seeks to encapsulate and communicate.

  4. cameron said,

    January 12, 2021 @ 1:24 pm

    On the Wikipedia page for Black Lives Matter there are links to the corresponding pages in quite a number of other languages. Most of those pages have the English phrase as the title, but most of them provide translations into the language that the articles are written in. In a couple of cases two alternate translations are given.

    Here are a few picked mostly at random:
    Arabic: حياة السود مهمة
    Breton: Pouezus eo ar buhezioù du
    Danish: Sorte liv betyder noget
    German: Schwarze Leben zählen
    Spanish: Las vidas negras importan
    French: « les vies noires comptent » ou « la vie des Noirs compte »
    Persian: جان سیاه‌پوستان مهم است
    Hungarian: Számítanak a Fekete Életek
    Polish: "Czarne życia się liczą" albo "Czarne życia mają znaczenie"
    Russian: Жизни чёрных важны
    Turkish: Siyahilerin Yaşamları da Değerlidir

    As you can see from the two alternate French translations, another ambiguity in the English is that "Black lives" refers to the lives of Black people, and not literally to lives that are Black

  5. Trogluddite said,

    January 12, 2021 @ 2:15 pm

    Terry K. said: "The tautology is the point."

    To give another example: autism advocates often use the phrase; "When you have met one autistic person, you have met *one* autistic person". You really can't get much more tautological than that! And again, that's exactly the point – people who expect all autistic people to be clones merely because they share a neurological diagnosis are fools. There is a deliberate note of condescension out of frustration that there are still so many people who make such assertions necessary at all.

  6. Jamie said,

    January 12, 2021 @ 3:34 pm

    I agree with Terry K that the first translation is the best.

    Maybe you can think of it as a translation of "Black lives matter [just as much as yours]" (which also defuses the attempts to dismiss BLM by saying that "all lives matter")

  7. Philip Taylor said,

    January 12, 2021 @ 4:09 pm

    I respectfully disagree with the suggestion that "all lives matter" is an attempt to defuse (or de-anything, where de-anything has negative connotations) the statement "black lives matter". Rather, I see it as a very positive statement — all lives, no matter whether they be black, white, red, yellow, brown, pink or any other hue — matter just as much as any other life / all other lives. It is difficult for me to think of a more positive, and universally respectful, statement than that.

  8. Twill said,

    January 12, 2021 @ 4:12 pm

    The advantage 黑命貴 has over the others is its punchiness— a vital characteristic of a protest slogan. 黑人的命也是命 probably conveys the idea better but is near impossible to imagine chanted with the same ease.

  9. Kenny Easwaran said,

    January 12, 2021 @ 4:22 pm

    Re: Philip Taylor

    I think a lot of people that are not directly familiar with the political context might think "all lives matter" is just a positive an universally respectful statement. This is why in 2015, people like Bernie Sanders and Pete Buttigieg made remarks with that phrase.

    However, as "Black Lives Matter" has become a growing political statement, it is pragmatically clear that anyone asserting "All Lives Matter" is either attempting to defuse the "Black Lives Matter" statement, or is completely unaware of the political context of recent years. Similarly, although it's true that all causes of death matter, if you're at a World AIDS Day observation and state "all causes of death matter", you are clearly trying to change the subject, and if you're at a women's history month event and say "all history matters", you are clearly trying to change the subject, and if you are at a kid's birthday party and you say "all days of the year matter", you are clearly trying to change the subject.

    It's a great illustration of the difference between semantic meaning and pragmatic meaning.

  10. a random person said,

    January 12, 2021 @ 4:28 pm

    Native Chinese speaker here, here's my two cents:

    The "黑命贵" is an extremely condescending and offensive translation, with racism intended. It's more of a a framing or alt right (in terms of US political spectrum) speak / dog whistle in simplified Chinese social platforms, than a valid translation, imo. You can roughly comprehend it as if it's mocking "black people are faking inequality while they have racial privileges" quite literally. If you think the "blue lives matter" chants that sparked against George Floyd protests last year were sickening, "黑命贵" is 10x worse.

    I believe, or I hope, that some people use it while knowing close to nothing about BLM (and sadly fell for the alt right speak), but there're influencers do mean to embrace racism.

    Source: all my hellish experiences with sina weibo (the Chinese twitter).

  11. Philip Taylor said,

    January 12, 2021 @ 4:34 pm

    I accept your argument, Kenny. But would you not agree that the statement "black lives matter", taken in isolation, can be interpreted as implying "and other lives don't" ? It is for this reason that I feel more willing to be associated with the statement "all lives matter" than with the statement "black lives matter".

  12. Carl said,

    January 12, 2021 @ 4:39 pm

    The opposite of BLM is "Black lives don't matter", not "only Black lives matter" . I hope that clears it up a little. It has a very particular pragmatic meaning as was pointed out above.

  13. Michael Watts said,

    January 12, 2021 @ 4:40 pm

    But would you not agree that the statement "black lives matter", taken in isolation, can be interpreted as implying "and other lives don't" ?

    In isolation, of course, or there would be no point in saying it.

    In context, it seems pretty clear that the primary intent is to contradict the unstated idea "black lives don't matter", which provides a reason for saying it. Same as the "do" in "I do like eggs", which should only appear in response to the suggestion that I don't like eggs.

  14. a random person said,

    January 12, 2021 @ 4:50 pm

    Just a clarification of my previous comment:
    "贵" could be interpreted on a wide spectrum of attitude in different context, the author of this post is correct about that, and the word "Hēi mìng guì 黑命贵" itself isn't necessarily inherently convey racism.

    However, it is the contexts that rendered the word to be offensive and frames the BLM into a completely different movement / political event for the word's users. Why are most search results this racial slur instead of the more reasonable ones, you may wonder. It's because simplified Chinese has became a cesspool and way beyond rescue.

  15. Philip Taylor said,

    January 12, 2021 @ 5:05 pm

    Carl, I do not understand your point. Clearly the opposite of "black lives matter" is "black lives do not matter", and I hope that I did not unwittingly suggest otherwise. But where we seem to differ is whether "black lives matter" implies "only black lives matter" — clearly it does not (or is not intended to) which is why I find "all lives matter" a more overtly inclusive way of expressing exactly the same idea.

  16. SamC said,

    January 12, 2021 @ 5:20 pm

    American Sign Language also has variations in how BLM is translated, primarily because there is no 1:1 translation for "matter" – some sign "important," which can also be translated as "worthy" or "worth," but more and more deaf signers are using the sign that's usually translated as "cherish."

    LA Times covered the debate earlier this year:

  17. Thiago Ribeiro said,

    January 12, 2021 @ 5:21 pm

    "Black Lives, too, Are Endowed With Intrinsic Value."

  18. Rumiko Sode said,

    January 12, 2021 @ 5:32 pm

    Instead of “貴”, the word “宝貴” should be used to unequivocally mean “precious” rather than “costly; expensive”.

  19. Michael said,

    January 12, 2021 @ 5:35 pm

    Without getting into the weeds here, I'm going to agree with various commentators that "Black People's Lives Are Also Lives" struck me, from the moment I saw it, as an excellent way of expressing the concept. I can't speak for how it sounds in Chinese.

  20. Chandra said,

    January 12, 2021 @ 6:07 pm

    If the purpose of the slogan were to be an all-inclusive feelgood singalong about everyone's lives, then "all lives matter" would work just fine for that. But the purpose of the slogan is to highlight the injustices inflicted against Black lives. Bringing other kinds of lives into the discussion is generally intended as a distraction or deflection by people who don't want to confront the issue of racism.

  21. Luke said,

    January 12, 2021 @ 6:19 pm

    It could be that there are some people do not believe that there is an issue with racial injustice and will therefore interpret "black lives matter" as a dogwhistle for "only black lives matter" if they believe they are in an environment where all lives do matter. It is rather uncharitable of you to assume malice within others.

  22. john burke said,

    January 12, 2021 @ 6:20 pm

    I note that the Wiki translatiion into German uses "zahlen" and the French uses "comptent." Could "Black Lives Count" work?

  23. Victor Mair said,

    January 12, 2021 @ 6:31 pm

    @john burke

    In Chinese, that would yield "Hēi mìng suàn 黑命算", implying "Hēi mìng suàn shì 黑命算事" ("Black Lives Count / Matter"), which is identical in length and in meaning with the English wording.

  24. Terry K. said,

    January 12, 2021 @ 6:31 pm

    "All Lives Matter" does NOT convey the same thing as "Black Lives Matter". "Black Lives Matter" is specifically pointing out that the lives of a group of people who have been treated like their lives don't matter DO matter. "All Lives Matter" does not do that. It does not draw attention to the lives of black people, who have been treated like their lives don't matter, though those lives do matter. "All lives" includes black lives yes, but it doesn't draw the listener or reader to think about black lives in particular.

    And, as Twill points out with the Chinese translations, punchiness is a good thing in a slogan. "All lives matter, including black lives, so (let's) stop treating them like they don't." is more precise, but it doesn't make a good slogan.

  25. Uly said,

    January 12, 2021 @ 6:32 pm

    I accept your argument, Kenny. But would you not agree that the statement "black lives matter", taken in isolation, can be interpreted as implying "and other lives don't" ?

    No, that's a completely ridiculous interpretation.

    It is for this reason that I feel more willing to be associated with the statement "all lives matter" than with the statement "black lives matter".

    Well, you do you, but most people who are going out saying "All lives matter" are, in fact, bigots. You're judged by the company you keep.

    It could be that there are some people do not believe that there is an issue with racial injustice and will therefore interpret "black lives matter" as a dogwhistle for "only black lives matter" if they believe they are in an environment where all lives do matter. It is rather uncharitable of you to assume malice within others.

    If some people do not believe that there is an issue with racial injustice, then some people are choosing not to pay attention. I don't know why they would do that, but I can't think anything charitable about people like that.

  26. Carl said,

    January 12, 2021 @ 6:46 pm

    Twill has said what I hoped to say, only much more clearly.
    Many thanks!

  27. Luke said,

    January 12, 2021 @ 6:48 pm

    Have you considered that your view of the world isn't infallible? If there are people that don't see the same things that you do then it is possible that they have a reason for their belief, just as you have a reason for yours.

    It is rather uncharitable that you attribute their disbelief to their ignorance, rather than considering the possibility that they may know something that you do not, which if that were the case would mean that your argument of "some people are choosing not to pay attention" could very well be used against yourself.

  28. Peter Taylor said,

    January 12, 2021 @ 6:58 pm

    Michael Watts said,

    Same as the "do" in "I do like eggs", which should only appear in response to the suggestion that I don't like eggs.

    I'm not disagreeing with your main point, but I don't think that this comparison works because the do can also be used as an intensifier when this statement introduces the question of how much you like eggs.

  29. Chandra said,

    January 12, 2021 @ 11:26 pm

    @Uly: On the subject of worldviews not being infallible, it is very likely that the many millions of Black people living through the experiences of racism every day for their entire lives are a better authority to speak on the issue than those who do not experience it, and whose worldview therefore, when it comes to racism, is very fallible.

    I don't turn to dentists when I want to learn about ophthalmology. I don't assume that mathematicians know more about phonology than linguists. And I don't presume that the worldview of non-Black people is more accurate than that of Black people when it comes to the issue of racism. Frankly, I find it rather uncharitable that anyone would.

  30. Chandra McCann said,

    January 12, 2021 @ 11:27 pm

    Sorry, my last comment should have been directed at Luke, not Uly.

  31. Philip Taylor said,

    January 13, 2021 @ 2:47 am

    Chandra — "Bringing other kinds of lives into the discussion is generally intended as a distraction or deflection by people who don't want to confront the issue of racism".

    I cannot speak to, or answer for, what "Bringing other kinds of lives into the discussion is generally intended [to do]", I can speak only to my own motivation for so doing. And my motivation is simply to emphasise that all lives are equally important, and that skin pigmentation, being no more than an artifact of birth, cannot affect that importance by as little as one iota. The world is not divided into black and white — see Jablonski and Chaplin, 2017, for a discussion of the colours of humanity.

    Ask me if racisism exists, and is endemic in certain groups, and I will unhesitatingly answer "yes, and it must be rooted out". Ask me if black lives matter more than white and I will equally unhesitatingly answer "no, no more than white lives matter more than black, or any other colour".

    I hope that clarifies my position.

  32. Levantine said,

    January 13, 2021 @ 4:58 am

    Phillip Taylor, no-one is saying that black lives matter more than white ones. As others have already pointed out to you, that isn’t what Black Lives Matter means.

  33. Philip Taylor said,

    January 13, 2021 @ 6:06 am

    I fully accept that the phrase "black lives matter" does not mean "black lives matter more than white" — the problem is, it can be interpreted as meaning exactly that. Therefore, IMHO, it is better to express the sentiment as "all lives matter", to ensure that no ambiguity is possible.

  34. rosie said,

    January 13, 2021 @ 6:35 am

    @Kenny Easwaran Your analogies aren't fair. True, saying "all lives matter" at a BLM event would "change the subject", as you put it, because the nature of the event establishes a subject. But nobody suggested doing that, though. With no prior context of an event for a particular cause, you are allowed to choose a subject by saying "all lives matter" or by speaking up for any other cause.

    @Chandra What it is about speaking up for inclusivity that warrants it being called a "feelgood singalong"? I disagree with that view when it comes to inclusivity on matters other than race — matters that are just as worthy of discussion as racism. When people discuss them, then treating them as "people who don't want to confront the issue of racism", and this discussion as "distraction or deflection", is to misrepresent them and their actions. There is plenty of room, in discussions among people, for a variety of subjects.

  35. Victor Mair said,

    January 13, 2021 @ 6:48 am


    "There is plenty of room, in discussions among people, for a variety of subjects."

    And views.

  36. Trogluddite said,

    January 13, 2021 @ 7:21 am

    @Philip Taylor: "…to ensure that no ambiguity is possible".
    But there now exist contexts in which "all lives matter" may not be a simple assertion, but is a fixed idiom adopted as a polite form of dismissal, to camouflage prejudices, or as a shibboleth. Naturally, it is also prejudicial to assume without evidence that a speaker is using the phrase euphemistically. Ambiguity arises not from the composition of the phrase, but from uncertainty about the speaker's reason for uttering it – it is only unambiguous if we are certain that it is intended to be taken literally.

  37. Rodger C said,

    January 13, 2021 @ 7:52 am

    the do can also be used as an intensifier when this statement introduces the question of how much you like eggs

    To me that's a specifically British usage.

  38. Victor Mair said,

    January 13, 2021 @ 8:28 am

    I find the comments to this post illuminating in that they illustrate the degree to which translation helps us to understand the source language better by virtue of examining how it is rendered in the target language. This is certainly the case with Classical Chinese / Literary Sinitic. For one instance (the possibilities are legion), see this post:

    "Ancient Chinese mottos" (4/5/20)

  39. Philip Taylor said,

    January 13, 2021 @ 8:32 am

    Well, "this one will run and run", as they say. But given a statement about a single group (black lives) and a statement about all groups (all lives), it does seem to me that the former can legitimately be interpreted as implying, if not "and other lives don't", at least "but we have nothing to say about other lives", whilst the latter implicitly includes "black lives". I therefore continue to believe (while not disregarding the alternative views outlined here and elsewhere) that the inclusive form is to be preferred to the exclusive.

    (OT trivia) As a native Briton, the statement "I dolove eggs !" is just the sort of thing that one might spontaneously say when eating a particular delicious omelette, or egg-and-anchovy sandwich, or whatever.

  40. David C. said,

    January 13, 2021 @ 9:36 am

    To get back to the original discussion, I would argue 貴 here has the meaning as in 高低貴賤. In other words, “noble” and “common” – “patrician” and “plebeian” if you will.

    Not sure why Diana was so dismissive of such an interpretation of the word, given that it’s the second-most common definition of 貴 in the dictionary.

    And as pointed out, slogans in modern Chinese are full of Classical Chinese / Literary Sinitic, precisely to be concise, to make historical allusions, and to be more memorable.

    On the more political side of this discussion, 黑命貴 is not used nearly as much as 黑人的命也是命 in the Chinese-language media. Let’s not paint the Chinese community with a broad brush here. It’s independent outlets and commentators that have taken a liking to the former term. My personal interpretation is that it’s an expression of irony or frustration against government and social policies that have long been perceived as discriminatory against the Chinese community. For instance, Chinese-Americans usually don’t benefit from affirmative action and are sometimes even labeled “overrepresented” despite facing many of the same social barriers in academic and employment settings. This is not say that it is at all analogous to the injustices faced by the Black Americans, but there is the underlying sentiment (fair or not) of wondering why their lives have been singled out for recognition.

  41. GH said,

    January 13, 2021 @ 10:37 am

    @Philip Taylor:

    By analogy, if someone were to say, "I am really sad about my wife's death," would you then argue that "everyone has things to be sad about" is not only unobjectionable as a response, but is in fact a better version of the first statement?

    After all, "everyone" implicitly includes the person sad about their wife's death, while the first statement could "legitimately" be interpreted to mean either that they are the only person in the world with something to be sad about, or that other people's sadness is not something that deserves notice.

  42. Philip Taylor said,

    January 13, 2021 @ 10:52 am

    GH — Is not a better analogy of "black lives matter" -> "all lives matter" for your example "I am really sad about my wife's death" -> "Everyone is really sad about your wife's death", which many (?most?) would find a very empathic observation.

    Alternatively one could respond "any man's death diminishes me", which does not in any sense seek to dismiss the widower's sense of grief but rather seeks to place it in perspective.

  43. Terry K. said,

    January 13, 2021 @ 12:25 pm

    Quite simply, Philip Taylor, if a person want to make a point about black lives, they need to say "black lives". Saying "all lives" doesn't cut it… it doesn't put the idea of black people, their lives, into the mind of the listener. Basic fact of language, it seems to me. So, no "all lives matter" does NOT convey what "black lives matter" is trying to communicate. It does nothing to convey that black lives in particular should be included among the lives that are considered to matter. There is no implicit inclusion of black lives.

    Especially given a historical context where "liberty and justice for all" didn't include black people, where "all men are created equal" didn't include black men. When black people have been excluded from "all", then "all" very much fails to implicitly include then. And now, in the present, we have a context where "all lives matter" is used to dismiss the viewpoint and experience of black people as not important, to indicate one doesn't care to listen to black people.

  44. Philip Taylor said,

    January 13, 2021 @ 12:31 pm

    As I wrote earlier, Terry, "I therefore continue to believe (while not disregarding the alternative views outlined here and elsewhere) that the inclusive form is to be preferred to the exclusive". I understand your viewpoint, I simply do not share it. I have made my position clear, I now leave it to others to debate it if they wish.

  45. Luke said,

    January 13, 2021 @ 3:08 pm

    The phrase 'Black lives matter too' removes all ambiguity surrounding the BLM name, yet nobody uses it for some reason.

  46. Levantine said,

    January 13, 2021 @ 7:23 pm

    Luke, because it makes for a poor slogan when compared with the far punchier Black Lives Matter.

    And let's be clear: there is no "ambiguity surrounding the BLM name". We all know what it means and what it doesn't.

  47. Luke said,

    January 13, 2021 @ 10:34 pm

    If that "We" is meant to be inclusive then you should speak for yourself.

  48. Renzo Alves said,

    January 13, 2021 @ 11:17 pm

    Political slogans don't have to have, and aren't intended to have, clear meanings or even any meanings.They do not need to correspond to "facts", and might even be more effective political devices if they contradict known facts. They are intended to be easy to say and remember, easy to mobilize around (calls to action), and expensive to deny. "Black Lives Matter" is a very good example.

  49. John Swindle said,

    January 13, 2021 @ 11:23 pm

    The thing is that some in the USA have always acted as if Black lives do NOT matter. See slavery. See lynching. See Jim Crow laws. Policing. Education. Housing. Employment. Imprisonment. Disenfranchisement. Black Lives Matter is a necessary but insufficient corrective. This may sound political, but the linguistic question here is political.

  50. Levantine said,

    January 13, 2021 @ 11:33 pm

    Let me rephrase. Should someone find themselves confused by the slogan's meaning—and I find it difficult to imagine that anyone who even casually follows the news wouldn't know what's intended by it—they can look it up. They will quickly learn that "Black Lives Matter" does not signify anything nefarious.

    To take a more recent slogan, "Test, test, test" by itself means nothing, but anyone who knows what's currently going on in the word would understand what it's referring to. There's no need for such alternatives as "Test, test, test for all diseases" (All Lives Matter) or "Test, test, test for COVID-19" (Black Lives Matter Too).

  51. chris said,

    January 14, 2021 @ 12:03 am

    But would you not agree that the statement "black lives matter", taken in isolation, can be interpreted as implying "and other lives don't" ?
    In theory, but the level of isolation required involves disregarding the *entire society* in which the movement was created and continues to exist.

    Maybe the issue is just that you are unaware of the relevant parts of American history, namely, that there is a long and frequently bloody history of some lives being regarded and treated as less valuable, in word and/or deed?

    Since the movement originated in America, the speakers were definitely aware of this context, and generally the hearers too.

    What makes "All Lives Matter" particularly interesting is that if it had come *first* it would indeed be reasonable to interpret it as you suggest. I can imagine another universe in which a coalition of activists from several different minority groups advanced "All Lives Matter", in which case the subtext would be "not just white ones".

    It's the fact of being deployed as a *response* to BLM, by people whose behavior otherwise signals opposition, that makes ALM seem to carry a subtext of "and nobody has ever claimed/acted otherwise", which is likely to be lying or gaslighting depending on the knowledge-states of speaker and audience.

    P.S. A translator probably ought to consider that the audience of their translation may genuinely lack context that would have been known to the original audience, so it may be reasonable to explicitly include an equivalent of "also"/"just as much" even though the original American text had no need for it – in America, the only people who didn't understand were the ones determined not to.

  52. Levantine said,

    January 14, 2021 @ 2:59 am

    chris, I'm a Brit, though one living in the US. Still, I'm in close contacts with my friends back in the UK, most of whom are black or ethnic-minority Londoners, and they're certainly aware of (and have themselves experienced) the context in which Black Lives Matter makes sense. I should think the same is true across the anglophone world, even if each country has its own particular history of racism.

  53. Luke said,

    January 14, 2021 @ 8:50 am

    Levantine, I live in the UK and the history of ethnic minorities in this country is very different compared to the United States. The main grievances of the BLM movement have consistently been about police brutality against black people, which is very rare in the UK. While BLM may mean "Black lives matter too" in the US, I speak from personal experience that many in the UK see BLM as "only Black lives matter", as the perceived injustices seen in the US are seldom seen here.

    This is exactly what I mean when I tell people not to assume that their world view is what people see by default, yet some people still choose to interpret the intentions of others as uncharitably as possible.

  54. Daniel said,

    January 14, 2021 @ 1:35 pm

    "Black lives matter" follows the pattern that it states something that is so mild that everyone wants to agree with because to literally agree with the converse would be shocking. Saying, "Black lives don't matter," would seem to imply that you'd be indifferent to their death or mistreatment.

    However, the principle of relevance applies here. By proclaiming "Black lives matter" one is asserting that it needs to be said, so that it implies something like: "A significant number of people think/act like black lives don't matter."

    Therefore asserting the slogan and passively agreeing with it imply two different messages. But, once someone has passively agreed, it's hard to explain why one wouldn't join the movement, since the key difference is only expressed in implicature.

    Enter: "All lives matter." It passively agrees with the statement "Black lives matter" => "I oppose mistreatment of black people," but it contradicts the implication that the injustice experienced by black people is widespread and pervasive (such that their lives appear to be mistreated without care). Rather, from my understanding, it implies that acts of injustice experienced by some black individuals (e.g. police brutality) are also experienced by those of other races and would be better fought race neutrally.

  55. Benjamin E. Orsatti said,

    January 14, 2021 @ 3:31 pm

    Daniel said: "Therefore asserting the slogan and passively agreeing with it imply two different messages. But, once someone has passively agreed, it's hard to explain why one wouldn't join the movement, since the key difference is only expressed in implicature."

    Isn't that giving names and slogans a bit too much persuasive power? I mean, I can explain perfectly well why I wouldn't join the National Socialist German Workers' Party, even though there's nothing objectively sinister about the idea of nationalist German workers advocating for socialism. Similarly, one can easily agree with the _principle_ that racism should be extirpated wherever it may be found without thereby being obligated to join any particular political movement, whose platform may contain elements antithetical to one's personal morality.

  56. Philip Anderson said,

    January 14, 2021 @ 4:39 pm

    I also live in the UK, and while I would agree that the history of ethnic minorities has been different here, I wouldn’t say it has been *very* different, especially if British history is taken to include the history of the British Empire.
    Although we are shocked by the degree of police brutality (and vigilantes), we have our own home-grown examples of “black lives matter less” (Stephen Lawrence) and inner-city ghettos. So it’s not just black people here who can understand the BLM movement, and the majority don’t misinterpret it as only black lives matter; most of those who don’t like the slogan seem to those who might say they believe in equality, as long as nothing has to change. And of course a slogan may not just be words, it may literally be a war-cry (Scottish Gaelic sluagh-ghairm).

  57. Bathrobe said,

    January 14, 2021 @ 5:13 pm

    I think intonation is important. The correct intonation is "Black lives MATTER", which takes a stance against the (apparent) attitude that "Black lives don't matter".

    If all the girls in your daughter's class were having birthday parties but your daughter wasn't, you might say that "It doesn't matter if she has one or not". But if your wife said in no uncertain terms "It MATTERS", it would be a curmudgeonly sort of father who said "Everything matters".

  58. Levantine said,

    January 14, 2021 @ 5:47 pm

    This cartoon sums it up nicely:

  59. PJM said,

    January 14, 2021 @ 9:33 pm

    Around Los Angeles chinese community I’ve commonly seen this translation in posters and online posts:


    Seems succinct and poignant. I’ve heard it used in conversation, and it is easy to understand and remember.

  60. Josh R. said,

    January 14, 2021 @ 10:04 pm

    Regarding the Japanese translation, it too has been somewhat fraught, leading to the concession to just use katakana-ized English.

    According to the Japanese Wikipedia, when reporting on the George Floyd incident in Minneapolis, the translation used by HuffPost Japan, 黒人の命も大切だ (kokujin no inochi mo taisetsu da, black people's lives are also important), was criticized. Suggested corrections included

    黒人の命を守れ (kokujin no inochi wo mamore, protect black people's lives)
    黒人の命も大切だ、軽視するな (kokujin no inochi mo taisetsu da, keishi suru na, black people's lives are also important, don't neglect them)
    黒人の命は大切だ (kokujin no inochi wa taisetsu da, as for black people's lives, they matter)
    黒人の命こそ大切だ (kokujin no inochi koso taisetsu da, hard to translate well; probably best represented with verbal or orthographical emphasis, something like black people's *lives* are important.)
    黒人の命を粗末にするな (kokujin no inochi wo somatsu ni suru na, don't waste black people's lives)
    黒人の命を軽んじるな (kokujin no inochi wo karonjiru na, don't neglect black people's lives)
    黒人の命にも価値がある (kokujin no inochi ni mo kachi ga aru, black people's lives also have value)

    Interestingly, while most Japanese translations agree on "matter," rendered 大切 taisetsu (important, crucial, valued), it seems the thing they can't agree on is the relevant post-positional particle.

    The original HuffPost translation uses "mo", which is a particle of inclusion, generally translated as "also" or "too". The objection, as far as I understand it, was that it implicitly subordinated "black lives," almost sounding like an addendum.

    So typically, such a sentence would be rendered as "[Black lives] ga taisetsu" or "[Black lives] wa taisetsu." Now the difference between the particles "ga" and "wa" could be expounded on at extreme length, but to put it simply (but inelegantly), we could say that "ga" puts focus on what precedes it, while "wa" puts focus on what follows it. "Ga" is what is used when answering a question, so "[Black lives] ga [matter]" would sound like it was answering the question, "What matters?"

    "Wa," on the other hand, is considered a topic marker, and also a contrastive marker (i.e., the speaker is speaking only on the topic, exclusive of other like things). This leads to my above stilted, but semantic translation, "As for black people's lives, they matter."

    In general, either ga or wa would be for the most part acceptable. If you were to back-translate them into natural, idiomatic English, you'd still get "Black lives are important." But some commentators have suggested that given the various nuances of ga or wa, and even more appropriate particle would be "koso".

    "Koso" is a particle of emphasis. It thus avoids all the implicit nuances of ga and wa, and simply puts emphasis on "lives." Note that it doesn't put emphasis on "black lives" as a semantic unit that could be contrasted with "white lives" or "all lives" (I believe that such a construction would be "kokujin koso inochi ga taisetsu"), it puts the emphasis on "lives".

  61. Bathrobe said,

    January 14, 2021 @ 10:59 pm

    How about 黒人の命だって大切なんだよ!

  62. Bathrobe said,

    January 14, 2021 @ 11:04 pm

    こそ doesn't cut it for me. こそ is emphatic. It makes it sound like "If anything, black lives are important" or "Black lives are especially important".

  63. Leo said,

    January 15, 2021 @ 7:20 am

    It's difficult to agree objective grounds for comparison, but the claim that police brutality against black people is "very rare" in the UK has been challenged, e.g.

  64. Akito said,

    January 15, 2021 @ 9:46 am

    Note that it doesn't put emphasis on "black lives" as a semantic unit that could be contrasted with "white lives" or "all lives" (I believe that such a construction would be "kokujin koso inochi ga taisetsu"), it puts the emphasis on "lives".

    I think this is mistaken. "Koso" (meaning "above/more than all else") can single out just "lives" or "Black lives", depending on how you distribute higher pitch. (That applies to "ga", "wa", "mo", and other particles too.) Also, "Kokujin koso inochi ga taisetsu (da)" doesn't hang together. To make it grammatical, you'd have to say "Kokujin no koso …", although it sounds very makeshift.

    I'm happy with the original translation "Kokujin no inochi mo taisetsu da" ("Black lives matter too").

  65. Terry K. said,

    January 15, 2021 @ 10:01 am

    @PJM. Based on Google's translations, I like that Chinese translation.


    Posted above by PJM, which Google Translate renders as:

    Black fate
    Also fate

  66. Philip Taylor said,

    January 15, 2021 @ 1:36 pm

    I took a mental vow not to return to this debate, so I hope others will forgive me if I respond to Leo, a few comments above. Leo, I do not dispute for one minute that there is reliable evidence that some rogue police offers have abused their powers to violently assault innocent, law-abiding, black, Asian and minority ethnic ("BAME") people in the UK, just as they have in America, Australia, South Africa and many other parts of the world. But there is equally reliable evidence that some rogue police offers have abused their powers to violently assault innocent, law-abiding, white people too. Neither is excusable, the latter does not excuse or in any way justify the former, but it does demonstrate why we need to assert that "all lives matter" and work together to identify, and bring to justice, those who abuse their powers, no matter what the race, colour or creed of their victims.

  67. Rodger C said,

    January 16, 2021 @ 10:44 am

    I dread to enter this, but: In America, at least, it's not a matter of "rogue" police officers but of the general (though unofficial) ethos of many departments.

  68. Uly said,

    January 16, 2021 @ 12:18 pm

    Luke, Phillip – if I'm reading these comments correctly, it seems like you're both in the UK. And I don't think I need to read between very many lines to postulate that you're probably whites who spend most of your time with other white folks.

    So you know what? I have even less interest in your derailing and whataboutism and silly arguments. You're speaking about something you don't understand, on multiple levels. I wonder if you might have some vested interest in amplifying the arguments of bigots. (But I will charitably assume you may be doing so subconsciously.)

  69. Philip Taylor said,

    January 16, 2021 @ 12:52 pm

    No, Uly, I'm not "a white", I am a human being, just as you are. Your life matters just as much as mine does.

  70. Benjamin E. Orsatti said,

    January 16, 2021 @ 4:43 pm

    Uly — To be fair, this _is_ a thread where white people are discussing how Chinese people should refer to black people. I think pretty much any opinion is on the table at this point, don’t you? As for me, I couldn’t give a tinker’s damn what some political advocacy group chooses to call itself in any language. I’ll judge it by its actions. If the AARP wants to call itself the “Happy Fun Club”, or the World Wildlife Fund wants to be known as “Bears ‘n’ Nat”, fine, who cares?

    And as for clinging to the identities of “white” and “black” themselves, maybe the time for those to have been useful markers has long passed, if there ever was such a time. Didn’t some famous guy whose holiday we’re just about to celebrate mention something about the “content” of people’s “character”, or something to that effect? Probably picked up that idea from the book he liked to read that talked about there being “no Jew nor Greek” in the eyes of G-d.

  71. Benjamin E. Orsatti said,

    January 16, 2021 @ 5:08 pm

    Sorry. Let me at least post something on topic. Should the Chinese translation be something that expresses: “Let’s find out if police are killing black people unjustly and then let’s do something about it.”?

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