Lost in translation

I’ve my reservation on those China-hands, I wonder just how much do they truly understand China and Chinese, not just the ability to speak the language.  I’m amused to read couple of excerpts from The Private Life of Chairman Mao by Dr. Li; and Edgar Snow, one of the earliest if not the biggest China hands or Mao hand:

Page 120:

Mao described himself best. I am heshang dasan 和尚打伞, he told Edgar Snow in 1970, literally meaning “a monk holding an umbrella.” But heshang dasan is only the first half of a couplet. The second, most important and meaningful, half, wufa wutian 无法无天 – is always left unsaid. The sound wufa wutian, meaning ‘without hair, without sky,” is the same as an expression that means “without law, without god” – a man subject to the laws of neither man nor god. Mao’s interpreter that day was a young woman without a classical education, and she translated the Chairman’s self-description as “a lonely monk walking the world with a leaky umbrella.” Edgar Snow and numerous scholars after him concluded that Mao had a tragic, lonely view of himself. Nothing could have been further from the truth. Mao was trying to tell Edgar Snow that he was a god and law unto himself, wufa wutian.

I’m surprised at Snow needing a translator – how much had lost in that process?  So his bestseller Red Star over China was a fluke, because of uniqueness and relatively uneducated audience at the time – the First?  I only read tiny part of the book, more for the antidotes than the historical significance becasue there isn’t many legit book available during that period of time, mostly are yeshi 野史.  So I tend to view those books by non Chinese – although lack depth or true understanding (you should be able to filter that out – be a sensible reader), but do provide something of value.  After all, he did sit face to face with Mao – he had many privilege and access that most Chinese didn’t have or won’t have – even knowing Chinese like to put up a good face to impress the West – silly but it’s true.

Page 532:
By December 18, 1970, Mao’s health had improved sufficiently that he was able to meet with American journalist Edgar Snow, who had first interviewed the Chairman in Baoan in 1936, had written the classic bestseller Red Star over China, and had remained a friend of China’s over all those years. “I think Snow must be working for the Central Intelligence Agency,” Mao told me at the time of the visit. “We have to give him some inside information.”

Believing that Snow would pass the information on to his superiors in the CIA, Mao used the meeting to further U.S.-China relations, conveying his willingness to invite Nixon or any other ranking American official to meet with him in Beijing. He also took the occasion to warn the CIA of the deeper conflict within Chinese politics. “There are three types of people who shout ‘long life’ to me,” Mao told Snow. “The first type really means it. There aren’t too many of these. The second type is just following the crowd. Most people fall into this category. The third type are those who shout the slogan but really want me to die early.Not too many people fall into this category, but there are some.”

I had lived in the United States for some time before realizing that Edgar Snow was a pariah in his own country when he visited China in 1970 and that his message to the American government was delivered too late, well after direct channels between China and the United States had been established. And Snow probably never understood whom Mao was talking about when he said that some people wanted him dead even as they shouted, “Long live.” Mao was referring to Lin Biao.

I have to LOL .. Li’s assessment was right that Snow probably didn’t have a clue whom Mao referred to.  Thinking Edgar Snow worked for CIA, made me chuckle just as Putin insisted that Bush had Dan Rather fired – their limited knowledge or bias view on how American journalists or how America in general work.  I don’t doubt there are CIA agents under the guise as journalists or other professionals.  But Snow was a highly unlikely candidate.
China hand: well said on China Hand!
Truth, Still Inconvenient, written by Ian Johnson, Zhang Jing contributed research
A wonderful translation
Elaine Chao on foreign experts in China

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11 Responses to Lost in translation

  1. 無言 says:









    弗里曼 is Freeman, Charles Freeman, the Charles Freeman who recently angrily withdrew his nomination to the Chair of the National Intelligence Council. He was 29 when he accompanied Nixon to China.

  2. 来我家串门不能无言 .. 百花齐放 🙂

    哑口无言 yakou wuyan (be rendered speechless) or 无言不语 wuyan buyu?

    Hi, thank you for sharing. I enjoyed reading it.

    I met Charles Freeman (http://www.ireneeng.com/?p=2467) last November and enjoyed his comments at the forum very much.

  3. 無言 says:



  4. Any finding on “毛澤東和尚打傘這件公案”? What’s this all about? Care to share it?

  5. 無言 says:



    前幾天查時,找到下面網頁,文中言道唐先是直譯,後來又解釋「和尚打傘」的真正涵義.若我們相信該網站資料無誤,那責任就在 Snow 身上了.他何以直譯?只有他自己知道.Snow仍活著嗎?若已逝世,那這件公案就永無水落石出的一天了.


  6. Snow passed away the week before Nixon landed in Beijing


    I don’t think born in US would hinder Tang Wensheng 唐聞生’s ability in anyway, even linguistic wise. Actually it would have been an advantage. An interpreter’s might is solely rests on that individual’s ability n knowledge.

    Look at Chas Freeman or John Fairbank as examples

    I just had this sneaky feeling that Edgar Snow was a good writer but not a meticulously scholar or journalist. Combined with his access to Mao and the timing, he was in China before Mao was somebody. So scores of China hands looked after him. As I said, he might just be a fluke.

  7. 無言 says:





  8. 無言 says:

    「紫禁城」譯成 “The Forbidden City” 是否也是 Lost in Translation?

    有一次與一洋人女孩聊天時,提到 The Forbidden City.她聞言滿臉詫異,一雙眼睜得好大,驚道:「為什麼叫 The Forbidden City?」

  9. What did she think the name should be?

  10. 無言 says:


    我從她的表情推測,”The Forbidden City”一詞的意思可能不是「禁止入內之城」,好像是「禁止存在之城」,有doomed city的味道,不知是否如此.

    由”The forbidden city”,想到以前有一部電影,叫”The forbidden planet”,黑白科幻片,最後該星球炸毀,真的是doomed.

  11. The Wikipedia’s explanation is very straightforward and fitting.

    (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Forbidden_City#Name) –

    The common English name, “the Forbidden City,” is a translation of the Chinese name Zijin Cheng (Chinese: 紫禁城; pinyin: Zǐjinchéng; literally “Purple Forbidden City”). Another English name of similar origin is “Forbidden Palace”.[3]

    The name “Zijin Cheng” is a name with significance on many levels. Zi, or “Purple”, refers to the North Star, which in ancient China was called the Ziwei Star, and in traditional Chinese astrology was the abode of the Celestial Emperor. The surrounding celestial region, the Ziwei Enclosure (Chinese: 紫微垣; pinyin: Zǐwēiyuán), was the realm of the Celestial Emperor and his family. The Forbidden City, as the residence of the terrestrial emperor, was its earthly counterpart. Jin, or “Forbidden”, referred to the fact that no-one could enter or leave the palace without the emperor’s permission. Cheng means a walled city.[4]

    Today, the site is most commonly known in Chinese as Gùgōng (故宫), which means the “Former Palace.”[5] The museum which is based in these buildings is known as the “Palace Museum” (Chinese: 故宫博物院; pinyin: Gùgōng Bówùyùan).

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