Missed in Translation

24 Feb

US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton should just stick to English – and modern Chinese.

In a speech on U.S.-China relations to the Asia Society on Feb. 13, Clinton used the aphorism, tongchuan gongji (or, is that “Tong Zhou Gong Jin“?), which means roughly “when on a common boat, cross the river peacefully together.” The proverb was made famous in “The Art of War,” the book by the ancient philosopher and military strategist Sun Tzu. Most listeners probably got the gist of what Clinton was seeking to say: The United States and China have common problems and should work together.

Like most Chinese proverbs, this one contains four characters (and four syllables) but is loaded with historical and literal meaning.

It alludes to an episode when combatants from the warring states of Yue and Wu found themselves in the same boat on a river in a storm. Despite their hatred for each other, they agreed to lay down their weapons for the common passage.

The problem with the proverb is what historians say happened afterward: The king of Yue went on to destroy the Wu. They remained foes to the very end.

I don’t think Clinton meant to evoke the sense that the common cause between China and the United States was only temporary, and that one side would eventually vanquish the other.

That Asia Society speech is available here.

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