How a U.S. 'Apology' Was 'Found' in Translation

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"You say tomato, I say toh-mah-toh, let's call the whole thing off..." Indeed, if China and the U.S. spoke the same language, the job of U.S. and Chinese diplomats negotiating the text of a letter from Washington that would allow them to end the Hainan standoff would have been a lot more difficult. And, of course, Beijing's monopoly of control over the Chinese media may have proved extremely useful in developing traction for a diplomatic solution in which one side needed to convince its public that it had received an apology, while the other side had to gesture contritely but ultimately avoid giving one.

Having defined the issue as a standoff over a hostile incursion that cost the life of a Chinese pilot, Beijing found itself unable to release the U.S. crew without an apology. But although it opted immediately for a diplomatic solution, the U.S. was never going to use the word daoqian, a formal apology that accepts blame — the U.S. believes it did nothing wrong flying a surveillance mission in international airspace, and has no intention of refraining from doing so in the future. In the battle of wills over the wording of the not-quite-apology, Washington wouldn't even go as far as shenbiao qianyi, a deep apology, for an incident it would be more inclined to blame on the other side. Instead, the U.S. twice used the English phrase "very sorry," first for the loss of the Chinese pilot, Wang Wei, and second for the failure of the pilot of the stricken EP-3 spy plane to seek verbal clearance for entering Chinese airspace and landing at Hainan.

Washington even put out its own Chinese version of the letter, using the phrase wan xi (deep sorrow and regret) over the missing pilot, feichang baoqian (extremely sorry) for landing without permission, and feichang wanxi (extreme sympathy) for Wang's family over their loss. Whether or not that was enough for the Chinese was a moot point — Beijing's media simply did their own translation of the English text, in which the double "very sorry" became the very "shenbiao qianyi" (deep expression of apology or regret) that Washington had steered clear of. It's a safe bet that the U.S. embassy's own translation into Chinese is unlikely to get any ink in the Chinese press.

Moreover, the Chinese media may be inclined to overlook the details of the U.S. statement, such as the very limited set of actions to which its "very sorry" applies. Any sign of contrition was sufficient, because in the end both sides need to move on to more important questions. And besides, creative ambiguity has always been at the center of U.S.-China relations. Did the U.S. actually accept Beijing's "One China" policy back in the Nixon days, recognizing China and Taiwan as part of the same entity? Well, the English phrase was "acknowledge," but the Chinese translation was chegren, implying acceptance.

Most Americans don't speak Chinese, and most Chinese don't speak English. And while it may occasionally be a nightmare for business relations between the two, the leeway afforded by translation is likely to remain integral to managing their political relationship for some time to come.