Thorsten Pattberg has an innovative and eccentric approach to Chinese translation

A somewhat eccentric German philologist and research fellow at The Institute for Advanced Humanistic Studies at Peking University named Thorsten Pattberg, is calling for the construction of a new “global language”. This somewhat absurd declaration is mired in the rhetoric of cosmopolitan utopianism but is also enforced by an intriguing argument about Chinese translation.


Pattberg wrote an article for Chinese website English people daily in which he argued that much Chinese translation relies on the assumption that a suitable equivalent exists in the English language. The English language already has loads of loan words including jungle which comes from Hindi and alcohol which comes from Arabic, so he argues, why don’t we just incorporate the non-translatable Chinese words into English and make a “global language”.


The word Junzi is often translated as “gentleman” but in Chinese it has a more complex and nuanced meaning. Similarly  the word shengen is not fully encapsulated in its common English translation of “sage”. Pattberg claims to have “restored the shengren 圣人 to East Asia and to world history.” He believes that “the public”, referring perhaps to native English speakers, is ready for the introduction of new Chinese vocabulary words such as daxue 大学 which I think means “university” but has a different historical meaning due to the fact they have existed in China for 3,000 years. He does not consider the word gentleman a suitable substitute for shengren and junzi 君子. 


Even though European languages have been borrowing words from Eastern languages for millennia and vice versa, Pattberg sees Chinese translation not as a cultural bridge between East and West but as a form of linguistic imperialism that dilutes Eastern concepts. Although I don’t personally agree with Pattberg, I admire his enthusiasm for Chinese culture and language and can certainly see that conventional Chinese translation services may not always be sufficient to communicate complicated and historically meaningful concepts across cultural boundaries. But a global language cannot exist and even if it could, it would exist at the expense of the diversity of cultures and ideas such as those from China that Pattberg himself celebrates. I will concede that the English language might benefit from the addition of a few Chinese words that would make Chinese thought more accessible to westerners but it could never be done artificially and would only work if there was a genuine need to express these concepts amongst English speakers. For now the best way of expressing any Chinese concept to a westerner is  by translating it. 


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