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Peter lived for nearly a half-decade in China, including two as a Peace Corps volunteer, and is the author of Socrates in Sichuan: Chinese Students Search for Truth, Justice and the (Chinese) Way. It is the intention of his blog to foster the sort of intercultural understanding necessary for long term relationships.
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Lost in Translation    

By Peter V
5052 Views | 18 Comments | 4/27/2013 11:59:06 AM

PART I - They were seated in a McDonalds. Daylight was on its last legs as they stepped inside to get away from the cold Kunming wind. They were talking about Chinese literature, a subject she was very interested in. He had just finished reciting a list of books he had read by Chinese writers. In order to demonstrate that he was sincere in his study and truly interested in Chinese culture, he showed her his copies of a couple of novels of Mo Yan, the recent Chinese winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature, and his collection of the complete short stories of Lu Xun, considered by many the greatest writer of Modern China.

"I think," she replied, "that if you read a Chinese novel, much you not understand."

Certainly she had a point. Any writer was a product of his or her culture. To understand the writer you needed to understand the culture. But he thought it possible for someone interested in a writer to learn enough about the culture to appreciate his works. To be sure, some part would always elude the outsider. But there had to be a core that spoke to all people, otherwise it was not art, at least not great art.

You must know Chinese culture," she continued. "Only Chinese know the culture of China."

"Sure," he said.

He was willing to concede the point in order to keep things harmonious. They had, after all, just met. A couple--a full-fledged couple who have been going out for a significant period of time and are getting serious--have discussions and disagreements all the time. The give and take of ideas is what makes being a couple interesting. You want someone to disagree with you, otherwise it is just like you are talking to yourself. But dating women in China, this sort of behavior could come off as disagreeable and turn someone off.

"I think maybe you waste your time."

O.K. That was it.

"But I think a great writer has to transcend his culture and speak to all people."

She nodded, but looking at her he knew that she had not understood a word of what he had said. It was the same nod he had often received from his students in the oral English class he taught. Indeed, it was the same look he had often given to people who assumed his elemental grasp of Chinese meant they could have a normal conversation. It was his fault for using the word "transcend." Yes, it was accurate, and no other word quite got across what he wanted to say. He looked in the Chinese dictionary on his App IPad. It was such a subtle and nuanced term picking a Chinese word out of the dictionary would miss the point. And indeed, when he looked for “transcend” he saw that all the meanings were related to being other-worldly, and this was not what he wanted to convey. Could he say it in simpler English?

"A great writer needs to speak to all people."


"Do you understand what I just said?"


"What did I say?

"A great writer need speak to people."

Close enough. "Do you agree?"


"But if you agree with this, then your first statement is false."


"If a great writer needs to speak to all people, then it is false that a writer cannot be understood outside of his culture."


"So which is it?"


"Does a great writer need to speak to all people or is a great writer only understood in his own culture?"



"I admire you," he said.

She offered a blank stare in response to his comment. Was it because she did not know what the word "admire" meant, had not understood his pronunciation of it or because she did not understand why he would admire her. He tried it in Chinese, because this was one word he did know how to use correctly.

"Wo xianmu ni."

Her face lit up briefly, but immediately assumed a puzzled look.


It was because she was devoting herself to what she believed despite what her culture was telling her. She was a Chinese woman over thirty and so should be married and have a child by this point. Instead, she was pursuing doctoral studies in Chinese culture. Few Americans could realize the stigma this carried. There are plenty of over thirty-year-old female Ph.D. candidates in America, single and unmarried, and a large part of the culture admires their independence and ability. In China, the joke is that there are three sexes: males, females, and female PhDs. Under these conditions, it took a tremendous amount of courage to do what she was doing. But how to put all of this into English?

"You are following your ideal." Blank stare. He looked up the word "ideal" in his IPad App: "lixiang." He said it and then showed it to her. More puzzlement.

"My ideal what?"

Shit, it was an adjective and he had intended it as a noun.

"Your ideal life," he replied. "Nide lixiang de shenghuo."

"What about my ideal life? I don't understand."

He tried another approach. "In America, we say you should follow your dream."
Silence. Was it "follow" or "dream" that was the problem. He looked up each in turn. There were more than a dozen words offered for "follow," from "bansui" which meant accompany to "yin xun," which meant to continue as in a rut. None of these seemed to be exactly what he meant. Let's come back to that. What about dream?

"Nide meng," he said. "Your dream.

"What I am doing is not a dream," she said. "It is real."

"Wo xianmu ni."

Copyright owned jointly by Author and CyberCupid Co., Ltd. Breach of copyright will be prosecuted.
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#2013-04-27 15:19:58 by canadianmike @canadianmike

I was waiting for her to tell him to "Lip the stocking! Lip it!"... (watch the movie)
Here's a guy involved in a circular argument in TWO languages. Impressive. I admit that I have had trouble explaining my point to a Chinese woman in English. This guy is facing the problem head on, in two languages, with a rather well-educated woman who I would have accused of being a robot by now.
Was this overheard? Was Peter the fellow struggling to explain his point of view? Does the robot come to understand the point being made?

#2013-04-27 21:04:34 by lhui @lhui

An interesting article.

"that if you read a Chinese novel, much you not understand." I do agree with her. yeah, "Any writer was a product of his or her culture" . but one most inportand thing you ignore is any works has its specific era background. for all of Lu Xun's works, if you know little about China's modern history. i bet you can't understand it really. in China, many a youngster born after 1980's , very few of them are able to read(读懂) the works of Lu Xun...

"But I think a great writer has to transcend his culture and speak to all people." here the meaning of the word "transcend" what you want to convey is "超越—chaoyue", am i right?

"I admire you"— i think here admire's meaning is "欣赏—xin shang " or "爱慕—ai mu" instead of "xianmu"; but " .....admires their independence and ability " here the admire's meaning should be "xianmu—羡慕"?

"Your dream"... i think if your interpretation is ""Nide mengxiang," instead of "Nide meng" , i bet she couldn't say "What I am doing is not a dream,"... "it is real."...

After reading, i think i am also almost "Lost in Translation " ...haha...interesting...

#2013-04-28 16:04:14 by woaizhongguo @woaizhongguo

@candadianmike: A combination of actual, imagined and overheard conversations.
@lhui: The question is not whether you require background knowledge to understand a novel. The speaker admits that upfront. The question is whether,even with that background knowledge, you can understand, for example, the stories of Lu Xun. I have had several Chinese people say that even if you know the history of that period you still cannot understand the literature of the time unless you are Chinese

#2013-04-28 21:30:27 by sandy339 @sandy339

Yes, it is interesting, this is the funniest entry I have ever read in your blogs so far…
She is so cute and innocent, and he seems so sincere, a funny match. It is kind of strange as a Ph.D. candidate she cann’t understand these simple English? I think maybe it is cos she is no good at listening and speaking English so next time they should wirte down what their meaning is, which might help? …. Most of Chinese are poor at listening and spoken English, but not so weak at reading and writing English comparatively…

#2013-04-28 21:33:25 by twhite725 @twhite725

Happens in any bilingual or bi-cultural conversation. Even in the same language but there it's usually easier to resolve. Every idea is facilitated by words but must be separable. People who speak several languages begin to be more flexible in their translation/interpretation. Or you can pick up a book on semantics. "The map is not the territory."-Hayakawa

Reminds me of a conversation with a Chilean in Spanish about who was Santiago for which the city was named. He could not get it...

#2013-05-01 01:02:26 by Grace172 @Grace172

Well, as you said she was a doctoral studies, I doubt that if she really not understood the meaning of the simple words like 'transcend', 'admire' or even 'ideal'... Occording to what you described about her response, I guess that she understood the surface meaning of the words and the sentences, but she showed puzzled because she did not catch your thought. And seemed she lacked of experience of communication skill with western people.
I found that the modes and the expression of thought is great difference between Chinese and western. And of course difference between men and women. When talking about a point, woman would like to come out to a conclusion by her sense without inference procedure. But man is different. That's why most philosophers in the world are men. And women would like more specific and detail while men would like more abstract.
When you tried to use the way to prove what her statement was false "But I think a great writer has to transcend his culture and speak to all people." It might be too sudden for her to catch up with your thought. She was still in her way of thinking. So when you said that she would tried to figure out your meaning and why you said that. That was why she show you puzzle.
And you said "I admire you." She might not understand why you said that as well and she was confusing what made you admire her. And also it seemed she might not understand what the exactly point from the word "ideal" you mentioned. She did not know what ideal you mean. You just translated the word into Chinese, this wouldn't help but made more puzzlement. Most of time she understood the word surface meaning, but she might not understand WHY you said that.
When you talk with a Chinese woman, and when she looks puzzlement give her more EXAMPLES to explain why you said that or use example to explain your meaning, this would help her to understand easily. This is only my opinion. Thank you.

#2013-05-01 14:21:03 by aussieghump @aussieghump

Circular Western Logic at work! If it is not one then it must be the other! Big fail in China

In Chinese there are 3 forms of logic...logical, illogical and Chinese logic. That is to say...'yes' is a universal answer that does not mean positive or negative, only 'I heard you and I might want to make a sound'...sometimes I think I prefer a grunt, snort or snigger!

From a western analytical viewpoint to understand something is to place it in a historical context and form 'personal opinion' on it's general, Chinese frame it in a historical time and 'feel' it's Chineseness without opinion...therefore there is no correct or incorrect, only the words and how they touch you individually.

I had an interesting experience of being a local tour guide for an out-of-town Chinese person this past few days...quite strange visiting places go historical importance and cultural significance and explaining them (quite badly, I'll happily admit) to a Chinese person...ran into a few of these logical cul-de-sacs myself.

#2013-05-01 15:47:37 by anonymous6091 @anonymous6091

@canadianmike - I saw the movie and I know what you mean about "lip the stocking". Has anyone else seen it and what did you think of the movie? I am still haunted by some of the the one where they are lying in the bed and he is talking about his wife and kids back home. So thought-provoking...

#2013-05-05 18:40:28 by ivygou @ivygou


#2013-05-05 21:31:26 by Tranquility56 @Tranquility56

Hi Peter, The conversition between you and the lady was just like what a Chinese saying says: A chicken was talking to a duck...

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