The Rhetoric Trap

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Interesting Chinese translation of the title of Yale philosopher Jason Stanley's book, How Propaganda Works:

The Chinese title on the book cover:

Xiūcí de xiànjǐng 修辭的陷阱 (The Pitfalls of Rhetoric; The Rhetoric Trap)

A more accurate Chinese translation of the original English title should be something like:

Xuānchuán rúhé yùnzuò 宣傳如何運作

Xuānchuán gōngzuò yuánlǐ 宣传工作原理

It's hard for me to fathom why the Chinese publisher came up with the one on their book cover.  Perhaps they were influenced by the infamous, but popular in contemporary Chinese Studies circles, book by Harvard political scientist, Graham AllisonThe Thucydides Trap (Xiūxīdǐdé xiànjǐng 修昔底德陷阱).  It may also be due to the translator trying to avoid the word "xuānchuán 宣传"), concerning which Chinese tend to be allergic and uncertain of its exact meaning and implications.


Selected readings

"Chinese, Greek, and Latin" (8/8/17)

"Insights from a Chinese grand master", by Peter Cai, Business Spectator, The Australian, Business Review (8/22/14):

…Thanks to Harvard scholars Graham Allison and Robert Blackwill, who interviewed Lee Kuan Yew extensively last year about the future of China, we can tap into the experience and insight of the grand master. The interviews were captured in Allison and Blackwill’s book, The Grand master’s Insights on China, the United States and the World and give a fascinating insight into China’s future.   …

Though Lee is generally upbeat about China’s economic prospects, he has a unique takes on the hurdles in front of the country. Lee, a Cambridge-educated barrister, believes the country’s notoriously difficult language will be the biggest hurdle to attract and integrate talent from other countries.

Lee’s belief in China’s inability to attract international talent due to its language barrier has been shaped by his experience in running Singapore. When he was the prime minister, he implemented and enforced vigorously an English-first policy in Singapore, including shutting the only Chinese language university in South East Asia.

He deliberately turned his back on the Chinese language to make Singapore an internationally competitive place so it could attract and assimilate talent from other societies in the world. Lee believes it is next to impossible to engineer a similar cultural change in China, a country with 5,000 years of history.

“We could do that in a small city-state with strong leadership. While I once advised a Chinese leader to make English the first language of China, clearly that is not realistic for such a great, confident country and culture. But it is a serious handicap,” he says.

[Thanks to Bryan Van Norden and Jing Hu]


  1. Jim Breen said,

    July 11, 2021 @ 9:31 pm

    Re LKY "deliberately turned his back on the Chinese language", I recall when I was in Singapore in 1996 there was a TV advertising campaign encouraging people to use Mandarin. The campaign slogan was "Use It or Lose It". That was after LKY's retirement as Prime Minister, but he was still around as a sort-of minister-emeritus. Perhaps he'd mellowed towards Chinese by then.

  2. alex said,

    July 11, 2021 @ 9:32 pm

    always wondering if there was a dedicated site like this for books translated into Chinese

    would be curious

  3. David C. said,

    July 12, 2021 @ 12:10 pm

    Browsing through bookshelves and elaborate displays in a Taiwan-style bookstore like Eslite Bookstore is a real pleasure because the book covers are just so eye-catching. A visit always gives me the urge to to start reading. The book cover and the dust jacket pitch all the reasons why you may want to read that particular book, whereas you tend to see less busy book covers in the West. There is probably significant influence from the publishing industry in Japan as well. In the example above, you'll see that they try to link the book to politics in Taiwan though I suspect there is minimal reference to Taiwan in the text.

    My take as to why title translations are almost never faithful renditions of the original is because it would too boring. A title that sounds like "How marketing works" and "On the theory of marketing" is an invitation to move on to the next flashy book cover.

  4. John Rohsenow said,

    July 12, 2021 @ 12:43 pm

    In Communist circles, "Propaganda" work has a positive connotation,
    which probably explains why it has a negative one in English :-)

  5. John Rohsenow said,

    July 12, 2021 @ 12:50 pm

    OK, Wiki says:
    "The definition focuses on the communicative process involved – or more precisely, on the purpose of the process, and allow "propaganda" to be considered objectively and then interpreted as positive or negative behavior depending on the perspective of the viewer or listener."
    Propaganda – Wikipedia
    But for the average speaker of (at least US) English, it definitely has a
    negative connotation.

  6. Jonathan Smith said,

    July 12, 2021 @ 2:34 pm

    ^ and more specifically xuān​chuán 宣傳 is a broad and connotatively neutral word meaning simply 'promote, publicize; publicity'; there is no great choice for Eng. propaganda. The Chinese descriptive text refers to zhèng​zhì xuān​chuán de zhēn​xiàng 政治宣傳的真相 'the (hidden) meaning/substance of political messaging~propaganda", which seems like the beginnings of a more faithful title…

  7. JPL said,

    July 12, 2021 @ 11:11 pm

    @Jonathan Smith:

    Instead of trying to accurately translate the culturally problematic term 'propaganda', maybe they should try to translate a phrase that reflects more accurately what Jason Stanley is concerned with, e.g., something like, "How official dishonesty serves political power". (My students from China have asked me with interest about the meaning of 'propaganda'; it is a bit of a challenge to express what the term means in a brief answer.)

  8. Bathrobe said,

    July 12, 2021 @ 11:32 pm

    I agree with Jonathan Smith. 宣传 xuān​chuán doesn't mean 'propaganda'; it refers to advertising, promotion, publicity. All business need to xuān​chuán.

    More problematic is the choice of 修辞 xiūcí, conventionally translated as 'rhetoric, figures of speech '. In Chinese 修辞 is defined as 依据题旨情境,运用特定的手段修饰文辞,以加强语言表达的效果 (roughly 'using specific methods to embellish writing in order to enhance the effectiveness of linguistic expression, based on the subject and situation'). While an appropriate match for 'political rhetoric', it's less clear that this is the same as propaganda.

    The most probable reason for the choice of title is probably the traditional preference for nominal expressions in serious Chinese titles. Whereas English might be happy to use verbal formulae like How Propaganda Works (perhaps more so in popular works), serious titles in Chinese tend to use strings of nouns.

    One possible translation given by Professor Mair is 宣传如何运作 xuānchuán rúhé yùnzuò, which means something like 'How to practise publicity'. Like the English this is a verbal expression, but is likely to be interpreted as a self-help book for good publicity and advertising.

    The other is 宣传工作原理 xxuānchuán gōngzuò yuánlǐ meaning 'principles of advertising work'. This sounds like a weightier tome (being composed of nouns only) and might be expected to be an academic or professional analysis of good advertising.

    In fact, the author of How Propaganda Works does not examine good advertising practice at all; he examines how political propaganda operates subtly, how it undermines democracy, and how it has damaged democracies of the past. It is more of an exposé than an introduction to good practice, and the creator of the Chinese title was correct in attempting to capture the negative cast of the work.

    Of course, whether 修辞的陷阱 xiūcí de xiànjǐng captures this properly or 政治宣传的真相 zhèng​zhì xuān​chuán de zhēn​xiàng 'the true nature of political propaganda' would be a better fit is another question, but the basic nominal formula used in the title is quite appropriate for Chinese and represents a reasonable attempt to summarise the message of the book.

  9. Bathrobe said,

    July 12, 2021 @ 11:46 pm

    @ Alex Wang

    In the old days when print reigned supreme, some dictionaries (I specifically remember Chinese-Japanese Japanese-Chinese ones) did give lists of translated books, which are quite fascinating studies in language.

    For instance, Gone with the Wind is 風と共に去りぬ kaze to tomo ni sarinu in Japanese, using the classical past tense form in -nu, a very direct but satisfying translation. Chinese uses the single character 飘 piāo, 'fluttering, flapping, drifting', although the alternative title 乱世佳人 luànshì jiārén 'troubled times beautiful woman' ('beautiful woman in troubled times') is also popular.

  10. Phil H said,

    July 13, 2021 @ 7:30 am

    Where I live (southern mainland China), the most common way of referring to propaganda in casual conversation is to use the words 洗脑 (literally, brainwashing). People might refer to the posters about the Chinese dream that they have up everywhere as 洗脑套语 or similar. But as with 宣传, 洗脑 can also be used in contexts beyond the political. If we were talking about Amway advertising, people might say 洗脑.
    For specifically political propaganda, the obvious phrase would be 党话, but that is more specific than we want to be, as it refers to to propaganda of the CPC.

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