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Redefining the Great Wall

Not the Changcheng

As China seeks to expand the influence of its culture abroad, more attention is being given to the importance of translation. Not just in the most obvious contexts – the embarrassment of mechanical translations and errors caused by ignorance, or the mind-bending officialese found in state organs – but more subtle issues involving specific aspects of Chinese culture. Do existing translations fail to capture all of the nuances of certain cultural phenomena? Or worse, are they misleading enough to actively obstruct the successful spread of Chinese culture worldwide?

Zhao Qizheng, former director of the State Council Information Office, has argued that Peking Opera should really be called “Jingju” so it is not confused with the European art form, and the traditional form of stand-up comedy sometimes called “crosstalk” is just as often referred to in English as “xiangsheng.” The dragon is another example: the true majesty and benevolence of the Chinese variety is obscured by the malevolence of the western mythical creature that also goes by that name. The issue also crops up in relation to government buzzwords, but in those situations, there often is considerable debate among the Chinese public over the proper interpretation of certain terms.

But it’s not just concepts from art or politics that are contested. Even something as concrete as the Great Wall is a victim of misleading English, argues Pei Yu (裴钰), a columnist who writes about the tourism industry.

Pei’s article, published in the China Youth Daily as part of a series of columns on cultural tourism, discusses the need for proper protection of the Great Wall as a monument of world cultural heritage. He asserts that the current English translation harms the cause of cultural heritage preservation because it represents only one small aspect of an integrated cultural heritage experience.

Pei’s piece concludes by recommending an unorthodox (and to my mind, at least equally misleading) replacement translation for “Great Wall.” Although he does not suggest using the romanization “Changcheng” (长城), for the sake of clarity, that is the term used in the translation below in place of the usual English rendition.

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