Lost in Translation

Our team toured the hutongs of Beijing Friday morning. Hutongs are narrow alleyways unique to the streets of this city, built by the Mongols during the Yuan dynasty 700 years ago. Part of the experience included visiting a household in one of the neighborhoods. Our hosts, Mr. and Mrs. Chen, were in their early seventies. Retired government workers, they were eager to share their home and viewpoints with us (although cynics questioned how much of that alacrity might have been influenced by a possible arrangement with the tour organizer).


Amy Li, our tour guide, describes the significance of the beams in the hutong doorposts. They represent a family's wealth, and subsequently, status in the neighborhood.

The tour guide, Amy, was our interpreter. “Now that I have retired,” Mr. Chen said, “I can pursue many hobbies. I garden, raise ornamental fish, and collect trinkets. My wife also has her hobbies. She likes grocery shopping, cooking and keeping house.” At this point in the conversation, those of us who understood Chinese chuckled and raised our eyebrows. When Amy translated Mr. Chen’s comment, she added in English, “I don’t think those are actually [Mrs. Chen’s] hobbies. Many men are very lazy. Women are the ones who really rule the roost in China.”

Our host, Mr. Chen, describes his take on Chinese culture while Mrs. Chen offers us hot tea.

Amy continued to project her presence into the conversation throughout the visit. Occasionally someone would ask Mr. Chen a question and Amy would answer it herself rather than passing it on to Mr. Chen. Rather than getting Mr. Chen’s take on Chinese culture and international relations, she offered us her perspectives. We only heard from him when we asked, “But what does he think?” Mr. Chen often offered his opinion on Chinese culture, both of his own accord and in response to our questions, but Amy did not always translate his comments verbatim, frequently interjecting her own spin in lieu of a faithful interpretation.

“I feel that some foreigners do not always portray Chinese people in a favorable light,” Mr. Chen said in response to a query about how Chinese view Americans. “I’m sure much of that comes from not understanding our culture.”

One can’t help but wonder: How many attempts at cultural understanding have thus been "lost in translation"?