Tag Archives: low-context language

Lost in Translation

As you may have perceived, my Chinese is functional, but not good enough for translation work. That doesn’t stop me. I’m often involved on the English end of translations. Hiring a competent professional translator is neither easy nor cheap. Usually a Taiwanese person with some knowledge of English and the material will be conscripted to convert the Chinese into “English”. These translations tend to retain a pretty strong Chinese feel. It is my job to turn that into actual English. It is tricky because the client often expects English to function like a high-context language. (See: A Low-Context Dude in High-Context Places).

Chinese often emphasizes flowery speech and beautiful form over mundane matters of accuracy and clarity. The tendency is especially marked during formal speeches, for governmental or business purposes. I’m often asked to help translate such speeches. The preliminary translation that I receive is usually full of grandiloquence and little substance. Something like: “It is my greatest honor and privilege to welcome the most esteemed, distinguished, honorificabilitudinitatibus gentleman from that most splendiferous country, Luxembourg, where he is an inestimable manager of legendary perspicuity.” It is comically baroque. To those of us with hopelessly stuck in English brains, we’d say they’re gilding the lily rather much, if we’re being kind; or, they’re flinging the BS high and far, if we’re being accurate.

My first reaction is to get rid of the useless twaddle. Those ridiculous over-the-top honorifics sound farcical. But, it is precisely that part of the speech that most Taiwanese executives care about and are anxious to see accurately translated. I have been told on numerous occasions not to be too concerned about getting the actual substance of the speech correct, as long as all the various magniloquent phrases are accurately translated and that each appellation is included. What are you supposed to do? If you provide the desired translation, the boss ends up looking like an imbecile. If you don’t, they may just turn around and put that drivel back into the speech. If they will be speaking to a group of Westerners I usually try to explain that English doesn’t work quite the same as Chinese. I’m often met with incredulity, but usually manage to get them to follow my English advice. If the speech will be to a group of other Asians, I inform them that the translation is bad English, but since their audience may nonetheless enjoy it, they need to make a cultural judgement whether to keep the overwrought wording or not.

The bias toward simplicity and directness in English is lost on the Taiwanese. My wife studied English literature in university. One of the courses that she took was a professional English class, writing and speech-making for formal occasions. She recently shared with me the advice she got in the class. It was distinctly Chinese and included such gems as never use a simple word if you can find a big—preferably incomprehensible—word. According to the class “big” is too simple, “immense” would be better, but “elephantine” being less common would be preferable, while “Brobdingnagian” would clearly be best. If you’re lucky no one will understand, while simultaneously being impressed by your incomprehensible vocabulary, or should I say your sesquipedalian loquaciousness. Annoying, right? Theoretically my wife is aware this is wrong-headed, but she still constantly asks if the new vocabulary she’s learned would be considered a big word. If it isn’t, she’ll ask me for an alternate “big” vocabulary word. It is hard to get past that Taiwanese mindset.

Her professional English class likewise emphasized the importance of complex grammatical structures. Passive voice sentences were preferred over the clarity provided by active voice sentences. Passive voice makes the meaning less direct, less clear, and obviously—from a Chinese perspective—to be preferred. The teachers believed it sounded more sophisticated and professional. Even better if it was a compound-complex sentence with each clause in turn using passive voice construction, obscuring the meaning behind lost subjects, and objects that refer to unknown words and clauses. From a Chinese perspective, obviously one should prefer the complex circumlocutory nature of such sentences—it matches the high-context nature of Chinese. Unfortunately, they’re getting it exactly wrong.

This is what happens when a Chinese speaker’s preference for linguistic ornateness comes face-to-face with English’s low-context preference for simplicity and clarity. Chinese language, like the culture, places a premium on form (here). Choosing an artistic turn of phrase or using an impressive word is important in Chinese. In English, such things can be nice if it’s not overdone, as long as you don’t sacrifice function—clear communication—to achieve artistry. In Chinese thinking it doesn’t matter so much if you’re effectively communicating as long as the language you use sounds good.

A Low-Context Dude in High-Context Places

The following article continues from “The Unified Field Theory of Culture Shock” (here) by giving specific examples of differences between Chinese and English. The contrast between high- and low-context languages is at the core of the linguistic differences outlined here.

There are a lot of different languages, but only two styles of communication: high- and low-context. Asian languages tend towards the high-context end of the continuum, English toward the low-context side. There is a fundamental difference in the linguistic objectives of Chinese and English. Chinese is designed to obfuscate. The language aims to hide the speaker’s exact meaning, to obscure what’s in their hearts, and to conceal their thoughts. English’s raison d’être is to communicate as succinctly, directly, and clearly as possible exactly what you mean, want, feel, or think. These different goals explain the differences in structure and usage between Chinese and English. Much cross-cultural miscommunication is rooted in these differences.

One complaint of Chinese-speaking students of English is that there are “so many words”. In English there are many words with only slight gradations in meaning or feeling. A simple example would be the Chinese word kan (看) meaning look. English probably has over fifty words with a similar meaning; peer, peek, leer, stare, glance, glimpse, gaze, gape, scan, ogle, view, observe, etc. These words are used in daily conversation. Since English seeks to be as explicit as possible, it is necessary to have a plethora of words conveying fine deviations in meaning. Chinese has 看. They don’t need such a finely defined spectrum of meaning as precision isn’t the goal. [Before some pedantic student of Chinese tells me there are Chinese translations for every possible English word meaning look—I know that. However, those words are not in common usage. As you start trying to exactly translate the fine variations of English meaning you’re soon down a rabbit hole, looking at poetic terms from the Tang dynasty or something similarly ridiculous].

In Chinese, rather than trying to exactly outline fine differences in meaning, everything is chabuduo yiyang, 差不多一樣 or “about the same.” Chinese verbal communication is absurdly sloppy from an English perspective. For example, I had a student take a couple days off school because she’d hurt her 手 shou (hand). When she returned I was surprised to see her hand was fine, but her elbow (臂肘) was broken. When I asked her about this, she gave the very Chinese reply: chabuduo yiyang. How is a hand even remotely similar to an elbow? If you’re willing to accept that a hand and elbow are more-or-less the same thing, then the difference between glance and glimpse is virtually meaningless. The specificity of English words is a source of annoyance and confusion for Chinese speakers. There are endless examples of how inexact Chinese can be. What blew my mind when first arriving in Taiwan was ta (他, 她, 它) meaning he, she, and it respectively, but in oral communication being pronounced the same. How can you even begin to have a conversation if you don’t know if the person you’re talking with is referring to a pal, hot babe, or a lump of poop? How this pronoun confusion could be used to conceal endless shenanigans is obvious and indeed the whole point. I could go on forever, but I’ll just give one more example, specifically the way Taiwanese use comfortable/uncomfortable. If you ask a Taiwanese person the reason they were late, missed school, didn’t want to meet, etc. the most common answer would be, “I felt uncomfortable.” That’s the most disingenuous answer possible—what does it mean? Did you have a cold, the flu, broken bones and contusions, a heart attack, a psychotic episode, depression over a breakup, or just general lassitude? Can you imagine missing work and telling the boss it was because you felt uncomfortable? That kind of equivocation doesn’t fly in English, but it is at the core of Chinese communication.

Often Chinese-speakers, when speaking English, will seek to make English as obscurantist as Chinese. English doesn’t work that way. When you try to hide your real meaning in English, it is obvious and you are quickly perceived as a liar. Failing to be reasonably direct and frank is impolite. Chinese is the opposite—of course. Stating your meaning too directly and clearly in Chinese is rude. The example I give my female students is that if they have a boy chasing them, they are free—in English—to tell him directly that though they appreciate the attention they do not share his romantic feelings. The guy may not be happy, but it is polite and not particularly hurtful. It conforms to English’s goal of stating as clearly as possible what is in your heart. In Chinese, to be polite, you need to circle around the truth to the point of miscommunication and befuddlement. English guys misunderstand what females are trying to say all the time, so pity Chinese dudes. Nightmare.

These linguistic differences are not too important until your language skills reach a high level. If you’re a beginning Chinese-speaker, the listener will be happy you’re speaking their language, but as your skill increases, the expectation that you will have internalized the language’s logic increases. If you speak Chinese fluently, but construct your dialog with English logic it can be off-putting. In extreme cases being semi-functional in Chinese is better than having excellent Chinese without the commensurate cultural awareness. I knew a linguistically gifted diplomat who spoke phenomenal Chinese. He worked hard at it. Unfortunately, he was not similarly gifted when it came to perceiving and studying Taiwanese culture and history. In fact he quite strongly objected to the notion that the Taiwanese were anything other than white Canadians speaking a different language. He continually, inadvertently, caused grave insult with his tactless (English style) of speaking Chinese. Ironically it would have been far better if his Chinese was poorer, the Chinese listeners would have forgiven him any perceived slights as just a lack of language skill, but since his language ability was excellent they concluded that he was ignorant or rude.

My Taiwanese wife has brilliant English. She works for the Canadian government in an English-speaking environment, with native English-speaking bosses. She learned English entirely in Taiwan and despite near native-speaker fluency, her thinking remains Taiwanese. Sometimes she’ll come home from work and say something like, “Today my boss said, ‘blah-blah-blah,’ and then he said, ‘blah-blah-blah.’ So, what does it really mean?” Her assumptions are wrong. She is thinking in Chinese, looking for a deeper hidden meaning behind the words. I have to explain that if the boss said “blah-blah-blah” then he meant “blah-blah-blah”. That he is in fact trying to convey precisely what he wants, feels or needs, in as direct a manner as possible. The only thing that might make him inexact is a failure of language ability.

As hard as it is for Chinese-speakers to adjust to English precision imagine English-speaker’s problems learning Chinese. Direct talk is relatively easy to learn once you realize that is the goal. How do you learn to artfully circumnavigate precision in favor of conveying a whiff of meaning? The Chinese tendency towards circumlocution becomes manifest in formal situations, when dealing with the older generation, or talking to someone of a higher or lower social position. One example can be seen in the marriage negotiations between myself and my wife’s family (“Marrying Taiwanese”). Honest to God I have no idea how I got through it. My father-in-law has some good qualities, but the man seriously believes that he lives in the Qing Dynasty. Before the formal engagement negotiations, he called me to his house to discuss issues he wanted clarified before the formalized engagement negotiations that would involve my representatives, the matchmaker, Venus’s family, financial negotiations, etc. I had trepidations. My Chinese sucks, it is functional at best. During this interview he talked a lot, and to my credit I understood virtually every word—but, I had no idea what he was saying. First he would talk in circles, seemingly drawing closer and closer to making a point, but just as he was about to clearly state his concerns, he would jump to another issue and beginning circling around it, eventually almost saying something before leaping to some other nebulous point. I was expecting an intense discussion about the nature of love, commitment, family, etc. Instead he circled around in the clouds talking about arcane, random, unrelated points. I understood the words—but, I had no idea what they meant. At the interview’s end, I asked Venus (who was there the whole time) to clarify what had been said. She didn’t know, but said not to worry about it, as no one understood him. Why bother having language if no one (even native-speakers) can understand? That’s my English bias; get to the point, state it clearly, and move on. Chinese is not that way.

Chinese writing is likewise imprecise compared to English. I’ve taught academic writing to Chinese students for a couple decades, they have a really hard time accepting how directly English should be written. The notion of a clear and direct thesis statement being expounded at the beginning of an essay is antithetical to Chinese language’s logic. Often Chinese students will do weird things when writing in English. Sometimes they’ll write a pretty decent essay clearly proving something, only to say in the last sentence, “Despite the overwhelming evidence I’ve outline, I believe the total opposite.” End of essay. It is enough to give you vertigo. It is surprising how often students try to build suspense, have a plot twist, and denouement in their academic writing. They’re seeking literary beauty more than clarity (very Chinese style). It is hard to explain that simplicity and clarity are beautiful in English and the core of academic writing.

I also edit academic papers for Chinese-speaking professors seeking publication in English journals. They have good grammar, but retain an inability to organize their writing into a coherent argument. Most fail to clearly state their thesis. If they have one, it is left to the reader to guess what it might be, as they do their best to circle around it, and with what they undoubtedly perceive to be great artistry try to subtly lead the reader to their point. It is English with Chinese characteristics—and it is God-awful. At its very best you get a descriptive essay suitable for newspaper publication. More typically it is seemingly random musings loosely related to the topic. The professors are doing the same thing as the students. They are trying to create that artistic Chinese argument, where like the great sages of yore, they gently nudge the reader in a certain direction. Despite having tremendous English ability, they’ve totally failed to connect with English’s low-context nature. To some degree academic writing is an unnatural fit for Chinese. The fine gradations of meaning and careful explications necessary are the realm of low-context languages. English is great for scientific writing, academic writing, contract writing, technical writing, anything requiring clarity. Chinese is wonderful for poetry and literature, where the language’s vagueness adds to its ability to convey feeling and beauty.

Chinese-speakers forced to forsake Chinese’s ambiguity can reacted negatively to English meticulousness. I have a Taiwanese lawyer friend who does international negotiations. She hates dealing with English lawyers because of “their anal need” to clarify, define, and explicitly state everything in writing. Were the contract in Chinese there would be no way to achieve such succinctness. She prefers Chinese because in-between the lines, in Chinese’s indefiniteness, she can wiggle around with an eye toward helping her clients. Where everything is so cut-and-dry there is no room for “lawyering”.

The differences between high- and low-context languages affect communication in ways that are hard to grasp. Many people with advanced second language skills fail to appreciate the structural differences between their native and secondary languages, the results include culture shock, misunderstanding, and unintentional rudeness. This is particularly important for long term expats since as your language skills advance there is an unconscious expectation in the host culture that you’ll communicate in a culturally appropriate manner. The onus is on us.

The Unified Field Theory of Culture Shock

Edward T. Hall in his 1976 book Beyond Culture posits a theory that all cultures can be placed on a continuum between high-context and low-context. The position of the culture on this spectrum explains almost all cultural differences between two countries, regions, corporations, etc. The high-/low-context framework is exceptionally useful for contextualizing culture shock and giving the expat a way of understanding the wackiness that dominates his/her life. Taiwan is a high-context culture; most English speakers come from a low-context cultures, and therein lies the problem.

A higher context culture has an indirect and implicit style of interaction. High-context communication emphasizes context as the preferred method of imparting meaning. Words are not used to explicitly state meaning, rather meaning is conveyed indirectly and nonverbally. The meaning of a statement is to be found in between the actual words. In a high-context culture there is an emphasis on establishing long term relationships. That’s logical as clear communication in a high-context culture requires familiarity. As you can imagine talking with a stranger who is artfully trying to avoid saying what he really means is a recipe for miscommunication. High-context cultures de-emphasize writing as there is less room for subtle non-word communication. By contrast low-context cultures seek clarity in all aspects of communication. There is a strong emphasis on explicitly stating meaning. They speak directly, avoid nonverbal communication, and rely on written communication. Can you see the potential for cross-cultural miscommunication and culture shock?

High-context cultures tend to be exclusionary. They emphasize community over the individual. Long-term relationships are important and there is a strong differentiation between group members and outsiders. The emphasis on being part of a group means that people in the group have enough shared values, experiences, and other commonalities to be able to communicate without the necessity of explicitly stating everything. These cultures rely on their common background to explain situations. Asian countries with their relatively high level of racial homogeneity tend to be high-context. Whereas more racially diverse (European) cultures tend to be low-context. The higher cultural/racial diversity requires individuals from widely varied backgrounds to use words to clearly state meaning, as there isn’t the group cohesion necessary for high-context communication.

The languages themselves have developed to reflect these different communication styles. High-context languages tend to be more ambiguous. While low-context languages have developed to state meaning clearly and explicitly with enough precision to convey fine gradations in meaning. These differences are clearly manifested in high- and low-context languages’ vocabulary and writing structure. For more information on high-/low-context languages and cultural linguistics see “A Low-Context Dude in High-Context Places”.

There is a strong correlation between collectivism and high-context cultures. High-context cultures emphasize building strong interpersonal connections and maintaining long term relationships. They seek to maintain strong kinship, patronage, and other social group ties. Distrust of outsiders is built into the culture, language, and communication style. [So, if you’re an expat in Asia, it sucks to be you]. There is a parallel emphasis on getting group members to conform to the larger group’s expectations. Low-context cultures are more individualistic. Interpersonal bonds are less stable. Group cohesion is less robust, which allows people to move in and out of a group more easily than in a high-context culture. Low-context cultures tend to be open and accepting of outsiders.

High-context cultures tend to be traditional. Communication requires society members to absorb shared cultural contexts and cues. Cultural stability is needed for the subtextual basis of high-context communication to be assimilated by all community members. High-context cultures tend to fight change and are slow to adapt. Low-context cultures have a lower emphasis on using shared history to provide shared communication references and thus are free to make quicker social changes. The downside is that large intergenerational communication gaps can develop, sometimes making cross-generational communication difficult.

One aspect of high- and low-context cultural differences that gets attention among multinational corporations is the difference between polychronic and monochronic work methods. High-context cultures tend to be polychronic, which values human interaction above time considerations and material objects. A polychronic work culture encourages multitasking, does not worry excessively about time management, and spurns strict organization in favor of a collegial—if chaotic—work environment. Low-context cultures tend to be monochronic, where people do one task at a time, they do it well, and then they move on. Time is considered to be very valuable. The monochronic approach to work is to carefully plan and schedule everything. Time management is of paramount importance. Getting it done is good; but getting it done on schedule is what matters. High-context cultures tend to feel that the process is more important than the product. In low-context cultures the end-result—in the case of work, the product—is what’s important. If you made a good product then the degree to which its production facilitated warm interpersonal feelings amongst staff is inconsequential. That’s not true for high-context cultures.

The high-/low-context framework provides a broad structure for perceiving and generalizing cultural differences. It aids in understanding the underlying social factors that sometimes lead to cross-cultural interactions going awry. It is generally used to place nations within a worldwide cultural context. It is inherently an instrument of overgeneralization, though a certain nation might generally be considered high-context certain groups, regions, corporations, ethnicities, etc. within that country may be lower-context. Still, I find high-/low-context theory useful for helping me understand my interactions with Taiwanese society.

I wanted to introduce the high-/low-context framework for use in future articles on cross-cultural interaction. It is a useful model to illuminate aspects of expat life in Asia. As you can imagine this article barely scratches the topic’s surface. If you’re interested in more information try reading Hall, Edward T. Beyond Culture. Anchor Books, 1976. ISBN 978-0385124744 and Samovar, Larry A. and Richard E. Porter. Communication Between Cultures. 5th Ed. Thompson and Wadsworth, 2004. ISBN 0-534-56929-3.