Untranslatable Words
Three Chinese Puzzles

By Song White


A recent article in the Wall Street Journal reported on Deputy Secretary of State Robert Zoellick’s September 2005 speech to the National Committee on U.S.-China Relations, and the frustration felt by many Chinese officials and academics in attendance. “We need to urge China to become a responsible stakeholder,” said Zoellick.

The problem arose because there is not an official Chinese translation for stakeholder. In this article, I would like to discuss this, and two other words—endorse and leverage—in the political and financial sectors that are difficult to translate from English to Chinese (simplified).

I first encountered the word stakeholder fifteen years ago in a class for business students. One of the word’s English meanings is “one who holds the bets in a game or contest”; the Chinese word for this meaning—which I found in my outdated Chinese-English dictionary—is “赌金保管者” (du jin bao guan zhe).

But stakeholder is often used today with its more contemporary meaning of “one who has a share or an interest, as in an enterprise.” In the context of a company, stakeholders include those who have an interest in the company and can influence it, positively or negatively. Such entities can range from individual stockholders and employees to unions and customers to domestic and foreign governments, and even competitors. At a time when a planned economy was the dominant system in China, a business had only one entity to be concerned about: the State. Other internal and external constituents that make up the concept of “stakeholder” must be able to hold “stakes” before the word can represent a meaningful concept.

In the past 15 years, constituent stakeholders have begun to emerge in China. In 2001, China became a member of the World Trade Organization, making the country itself a constituent in the global trade institution. The Chinese translation for stakeholder seems to be lagging behind the change in China, although many translations had been previously offered. The issue is more of identifying a translation that sticks and is intuitive for use—that is, one which is commonly accepted and understood.

My translation in Chinese includes “相关成员” (xiang guan cheng yuan) (“related member”), “相关团体”(xiang guan tuan ti) (“related group”), or “相关团体成员” (xiang guan tuan ti cheng yuan) (“related group member”). For reference, it should be noted that the U.S. State Department’s translation is “利益相关的参与者” (“participants with related interests”), while Chinese scholars have offered “利害攸关的参与者”(“participants with related benefits and drawbacks”), “共同经营者”(“joint operators”), “参股人”(“shareholder”), and “合伙人”(“partner”).


Now let’s look at our second word, endorse. The more “mechanical” meanings of  endorse—of “writing one’s signature on the back (of a check, for example),” or “of placing (one’s signature), as on a contract, to indicate approval of its contents or terms”—are relatively simply translated into Chinese as “背书” (bei shu) and “认可” (ren ke), respectively.

However, translating the other notion represented by endorse—“to give approval of or support to, especially by public statement”—sounds awkward in Chinese (“为某人背书” [wei mou ren bei shu] [“endorse someone”]). That’s because “背书” (bei shu) also means “to recite a lesson from memory.” A teacher or parent usually gives “背书” (bei shu) as pupils’ homework. The Chinese translation “为某人背书” (wei mou ren bei shu) is likely to be in a twisted meaning that indicates the person is acting like a pupil when reciting a statement from his/her memory to show his/her support. As a result, I have chosen to stay with a conservative translation, “公开支持”(gong kai zhi chi) (“show support publicly”), or “支持”(zhi chi) (“support”) for “endorse” in the sense of supporting.


Finally, our third word, leverage, has similar dynamics. This word’s original meaning is “the action of a lever,” which is rendered “杠杆作用” (gang gan zuo yong) in Chinese. As later applied to the financial sector, its meaning became “the use of credit or borrowed funds to improve one’s speculative capacity and increase the rate of return.” Today, of course, the word is found in many areas of business, as “to use, to utilize, and to improve.” Translating this concept into Chinese, however, is difficult since there is not a simple Chinese word to reflect the meaning. As a result, my own translation typically includes several Chinese words or phrases: “发挥优势” (fa hui you shi) (“employ advantages”), “运(使)用…”(yun (shi) yong …) (“use …”), and “达到最佳效益” (da dao zui jia xiao yi) (“reach maximum result”), to cover the single English word.

And what if the stakeholder uses her leverage to endorse someone? Oy vey! In the end, it is a translator’s excitement and joy—and challenge—to be on the cutting edge of introducing to a culture new words and concepts in a fast-changing world.

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