Studying, Xi, strengthening, countries, and translateability

For the most part, translation tbh isn’t really that hard. For all the sighs over “untranslateable” words (“saudade”! “Backpfeifengesicht”! “mono no aware”!), usually you can just turn one single word into a short phrase, maybe a sentence or two, and have quite fully captured the sense of the original. Sometimes it’s just a matter of dredging out a word or collocation which is merely rarely used in the target language, but may even become widespread precisely as a result of your efforts to ferry the memes of one culture across the sea of language and into another, in which case what might seem an ugly duckling of a choice in drafting could quickly glow up into a broadly-welcomed swan.

Sometimes, though, it is indeed wicked. Often this is the case when the issue is not just a single word with no corresponding equivalent in the target language, but rather has to do with the fundamental structures of the source and target languages and what is or is not possible to do with the most basic building blocks (“morphemes” in linguistese).

The name of a particular techno-Orwellian app developed and promoted by the Chinese Communist Party serves as a great example of this. It is a short four characters — 学习强国 — easily parsed into two disyllabic compounds (an extremely common pattern in Mandarin) of 学习, “study”, and 强国, “strong country”. A strong country of studying; a “studying power”, in the same sense as we might call a given country a “nuclear power”.

However, each of these pairs of characters can actually be interpreted dually.

学习, besides just “study”, could also mean “to study or learn (from) Xi” (ie, to study Xi Jinping Thought, now engraved into the Chinese constitution), the first character carrying the meaning of “study” when used in isolation as well, and the second character coincidentally being Xi’s family name. (More tenuously, it might even be rendered as “to imitate Xi”.)

强国, besides just the noun phrase “strong country” (or “power” in the sense of “the great powers; the industrial powers; etc.”), could be interpreted as a verb phrase: “to strengthen the country”. This sense of 强国 hearkens back to the late days of the Qing Empire and early Republican era, during which time much ink was arranged on paper in those strokes as debate raged in China over the question of how to strengthen the country to repel the depredations of the colonial powers.

So, we end up with a 2×2 matrix on the axes of “study”/”study Xi” and “strong country”/”strengthen the country”, giving us 4 options of interpretation:
1. “A Studying Power” (analogous to “an industrial power”)
2. “Study and Strengthen the Nation”
3. “A Xi-Studying Power”
4. “Study Xi and Strengthen the Nation”

The third option doesn’t really make much sense, because of course no country other than China studies Xi Jinping Thought (yet…). But the other three meanings are all undifferentiatedly embedded in this concise concatenation of four characters. The first two, in fact, may not even seem obviously differentiable to some native speakers, given the fact that adjectives and verbs are not so clearly distinguished in Chinese as they are in English (there is even perhaps some philosophical wisdom in this, in that a strong country is not simply something that exists statically, like an inert metal floating in the vacuum of space, but rather the result of a large assemblage of interdependent processes which depend on the assiduous labor, day-in, day-out, of whole swathes of society to produce so-called “comprehensive national power”). It’s one of the wonderful, and sometimes frustrating, things about the Chinese language that such laconic polysemy is so easily composed. So how would you translate the name of this app into English? Well, you kind of can’t; you can only write a blog post about it.

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