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Lost in Translation

Note: Unpublished “Parting Shot” written to accompany major coverage of Chinese boatbuilding industry in Professional BoatBuilder magazine.

The day after I returned from China, I attended my first class in Mandarin in Florida Atlantic University’s continuing education program. One thing I did not like about China was my own illiteracy. I wanted the familiarity of my own language and printed English words. What I got from my Mandarin class, though, was not the skills I sought–those may take a few more years to achieve–but a better understanding of the Chinese mind.

Our teacher was listing the names of the Chinese numbers: “Yi, Er, San, Si, Wu,” and so on, writing each simple ideogram on the board. Easy so far, I thought. And then one of my fellow students asked, “What’s Chinese for zero?” Our teacher smiled, turned to the board again, and began a tattoo of chalk marks. We watched in amazement as she drew the 13 separate strokes that comprise the Chinese word “ling” which means null.

It made sense. Our own symbol for zero no longer tells the whole story of missing pieces to me. I know there must be more. I found it equally interested to learn that Chinese has another zero, too, one that looks like ours, tilted 90 degrees. And, not only does the Chinese language have two characters that mean zero, it has rules for when to use each one.

In this class, I also learned that the Chinese language does not require verb tense. Instead, it demands that you state time at the beginning of your sentence. For example, “Yesterday, I go to China. Today, I go to China. Tomorrow, I go to China. Someday, I go to China.”

Knowing even these few details, you now have a tiny glimpse into the Asian mind. Direct translation is simply not possible. In The Geography of Thought, author Richard Nisbett does an excellent job of tracing the intellectual differences between East and West. He starts with the landscape of ancient Greece, birthplace of democracy, and compares it with the landscape you might see on a priceless Chinese scroll, showing an entire village cooperating to bring in a rice harvest.

Another book worth reading is China Inc. by Ted Fishman. He addresses some of our worst fears about piracy, counterfeiting, and unfair business practices. He explains how our own moral codes—which we take to be the One True Way—are not, in fact, universal. We’ve expected other societies to embrace our paradigm, and we’ve been surprised when they, instead, took only the parts they liked.

I recently had an opportunity to read a number of essays written by college students on Americanization vs. globalization. While many of us may think the spread of McDonalds and KFC proves the case for the former value, young people are more likely to see the many ways other countries have influenced us. Yes, China has become increasingly Western, but look around. Where were your shoes made? Your camera? Your granddaughter’s favorite cartoon?

I found that some of my favorite memories of China were the ones that I cannot translate into everyday life in America. I was extremely fortunate to have as my guide Marilyn Duppenthaler, who had already made a study of minor mysteries. For example, what would we actually see on our dinner plates if we did break down and order “Crispy Bone of Alcoholic”? Why did some of the full-sized decorations for Year of the Dog look like golden retrievers auditioning to be Chippendale Dancers?

Marilyn made sure that I got to experience a Chinese haircut, including at least one-half hour of shampoo/massage; a manicure that involved having tiny flowers painted on each fingernail; and several foot massages, ones that began with water so hot it could destroy the gelcoat on a top-of-the-line hot tub.

And Marilyn also introduced me to the Zhuhai ex-patriot community of softball players, Bob Dylan fans, karaoke singers, and pizza aficionados. All that is part of China, now, too, and much of what the ex-pats do must be a mystery to the Chinese. Just the fact that Vic Duppenthaler wanted his wife with him while he fulfilled his contract at Sunbird Yachts was a puzzle to many.

What I know now is that translation works both ways, and something is always lost. I believe our future success in working and living with the Chinese depends a great deal on our awareness that we are both always going to miss something, a nuance, a joke, a key component. Once we realize that the loss is there, we can start to solve the puzzle.