Future will bring more Chinese words and concepts (Transcript)

Danish Radio 24syv – Global China: The Rise of Chinese Terminologies (Interview)

Thorsten Pattberg talks about Chinese words in the English language, the problem of translation, global language, and world ethics with Chinese characteristics. [WATCH ON YOUTUBE]

We have long since become accustomed to using English words in Danish, but in the future we will also use more Chinese expression. At the end of the broadcast is Dr. Thorsten PATTBERG with us on the phone from China to explain why foreign loanwords are necessary. Interviewers are: Louise Windfeld-Høeberg and Christina Boutrup. [LISTEN TO INTERVIEW; starts at 46:00]


Dr. Thorsten Pattberg, Welcome to the Show!

TP: Good Morning to Europe! It is a great honor to be on your show!

You are very welcome! European media and sciences tend to translate Chinese concepts into more suitable terms that we can relate to in the West. What is the problem with that?

TP: The problem with that is, I think, that China is underrepresented in World history because Chinese terminologies are largely erased or omitted. A ‘China report’ in Western media without a single Chinese term is literally “Chinese-free”. And that’s a scandal.

Why is that?

TP: Well, there are many reasons why we ‘translate’ or stick to ‘translation’ and I just give you three: First, we need to translate for ‘communication’. So, translating a Chinese book completely –word by word- into English or Danish makes sense because it is easy to understand and to read. Second, at the same time it is a form of ‘reductionism’ and ‘simplification’ because what you do is you translate everything that is foreign and unknown into something that is common and familiar in your culture already. And third, of course, if you make this a ‘strategy’; that means if you purposely translate each and every Chinese term into your own language, that is a kind of ‘Language imperialism’, I think.

So your point is that, actually, some of these important concepts or meanings are “lost in translations.”

TP: Oh, yes, totally, that is a good term, this ‘lost’ in translations: We all know… we all feel this… if we learn a second language that in everything you translate there’s something lost in translation. If you think just about two examples of the Chinese culture: Think about kungfu (or gong-fu) and Yin and Yang. These are very Chinese concepts, they were developed in East Asia, and luckily, these words ‘survived’ and took their own way into our Western languages. This is a perfect example how it should work; Unfortunately, right now, there are still hundreds, maybe thousands of virtually ‘unknown’ Chinese concepts out there that we need to adopt –into English, for example.

Just a moment, we just translate a bit…

[Danish Translation]

Yes, can you give us a example of one of these very important words that are totally missed or lost in translation?

TP: Well, one of the most important, from my point of view, is that of the Chinese concept of ‘shengren’. A shengren is a wise person, and Confucius, Mencius, and Laozi (we’ve all heard about the great Chinese sages); they are actually ‘shengren’. This [fact] is completely unknown to the Europeans, because we simply translated the ‘shengren’ as (biblical) “saints” or (Hellenic) “philosophers”, you know, or (folkloric) “sages”… something like that… but in reality: The ‘shengren’ are as unique as lets say the ‘buddhas’ in Buddhism.

So, you mean it’s totally wrong to call it or to translate it with the word “philosopher” for Kongfuzi, for example?

TP: Yes, because the word “philosopher” is derived from the Greek tradition, the ‘school of philosophy’, from Plato and Socrates, and all this. We know it is an ‘Hellenic’ concept but we imply that these concepts are also available in China. This is actually a big mistake. We know this from Buddhism; I just mentioned: we have ‘bodhisattvas’ and ‘buddhas’ and ‘arhats’… And we know these concepts because we adopted these foreign terminologies into our languages.

Thank you, we just translate a bit again…

[Danish Translation]

Yes, and if we take another example, Dr. Pattberg, for example the word ‘democracy’. What happens when you try to translate that into Chinese?

TP: Well, the Chinese translated it as ‘minzhu’ and it works, of course, but they had to make up this word: it is a relatively new creation. The new word for ‘democracy’, the Chinese word [minzhu] is adopted from the West. Technically speaking, they don’t have a concept like this in China before. And this is true for many Western concepts, for instance, if you think about ‘human rights’ and this pure ‘individualism’ that we find in the west; the ‘rule of law’, these are all technical terms, even ‘science’ as a concept, and ‘logic’ –all these Western ideas-: they came to China, most of them, through Japan in the 18th and 19th centuries. So, China adopted all those ‘Western’ concepts; and maybe, in the future, we will have to adopt somewhat more ‘East Asian’ concepts in return.

And I think that is actually what you are working for in the ‘World Ethics Institute Beijing’, isn’t it? Could you please, and this is the last question, explain to us what is the purpose of the institute that you are working for now?

TP: The ‘World Ethics Institute’ is unique in China. It was just recently established. And it is sponsored by Karl Schlecht, this is a German industrialist, and he is supporting the idea of a ‘World Ethos’. This was formulated by the Swiss theologian Hans Kung, and the point o the institute is this: They want to find, or formulate, the Global ethics –like the global concept of Human rights- that expresses communalities, shared values, that can be found in each and every civilization in the world.

So that we no longer have to just use the Western terms as universal, right?

TP: That’s right. China at the moment –we know about the economic rise and the political rise-: China wants to have a stakehold in formulating rules that will guide us in the future. And this includes ethical rules. And China, as we all know, has an amazing history and culture: 3000 years of formulating ethical rules. They now want a stakehold in Western decision making.

Thank you very much! Xiexie! It was very good to have you on our Show. Thank you very much, Thorsten Pattberg.


Japan Times

China Daily

Die Zeit

Korea Herald

Global Research

Global Times

Asia Times

Taipei Times

Big Think

Straits Times

China Today