“Integrity” does not translate into Chinese. The meeting in China was on integrity in science. Speakers were all given translator-earphones. I could dial any language and hear real-time translators struggle with the terms.
Most of the time, the translators used the Chinese term for “honesty” when I said “integrity.” Indeed, a person who has integrity is honest. But integrity means much more that just honesty.
Other times the translators used a Chinese term that does not translate into an English equivalent. It is used for the respect afforded to teachers or officials and somewhat approximates “authority” or “position” or “honor” due to position in society. This term however does not necessarily include honesty.
For over 20 years, Chinese students have described to me teachers who made wrong statements.
“What happens when students point out this error?” I naively asked.
“Oh no, a student can never point out that a teacher is wrong!” comes the reply. A teacher has this rank or authority that commands respect and is reflected in this Chinese word that does not translate. Unlike “integrity,” that Chinese word does not include honesty, but does include concepts of respect and authority. I teach my student teachers to say “I don’t know, but I can find out” when asked a question where they do not know the answer. In American culture, there is no need to “save face.”
During Open Forum at the last Kansas State Board of Education meeting, a chemistry teacher spoke against the motion to let six school districts hire teachers without credentials. He asserted that this action was an assault on the integrity of teachers. He had no other word, but he needed that Chinese word. The ultimate Board approval of that action was not an assault on the honesty of teachers, but eroded the teachers’ professional position of respect and authority for which we have no specific word.
Because so few Americans—only 7 percent—ever learn a second language, we often have the wrong notion that words translate word-for-word. At the Chinese conference, part of my task was to explain the errors that can be introduced when English grammar-check services revise a Chinese scientist’s paper before publication. They may substitute a common English word that “sounds better” but is not as precise as the needed technical term, and this introduces error.
To illustrate this, I held my hands before me with fingertips touching. One hand represented the various meanings of a term in one language, the other hand the various meanings of a term in the second language. But instead of four fingertips matching four fingertips, move one hand upward so only three or two fingertips touch. Yes, the right hand word has several meanings in common with the left-hand word, but also has one or more free fingers (meanings) that do not match up.
For example, you might think that color names would be uniform in all languages—and you would be wrong. The color “huang” is generally translated as “yellow” but varies from light yellow into browns. Give an American child a box of crayons and he or she will align yellow with orange and red; brown will be grouped with gray or black. But a Chinese child aligns yellows with brown in a sequence of earth tones, and not with orange-red.
“Cobra” is our name for the hooded venomous snake; its allusion to swiftness is therefore used as a car name. But this very same snake is called “fahn-chan-tauh” in Chinese, literally “food-stirrer head” because its hood resembles the device used in stir-frying. To apply the name for the very same animal to a car is ludicrous: “I drive a food-stirrer-head?”
From negotiating treaties to reporting international news, getting the correct meaning across is critical. Misunderstanding can result in mistrust and unnecessary conflict.
While I listened to my translator in China, I noted that she often hesitated. She translated in spurts. She knew not to translate word-for-word, but idea-for-idea. That is why online word-for-word translation programs are terribly inaccurate. That is why 93 percent of Americans are not competent to really understand another culture.