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Interpreting the wisdom of Hu Jintao

The three don'ts

President Hu Jintao's speech last week commemorating the 30th anniversary of China's reform era contained a number of quotable phrases, and the one that has received the most attention was the "three don'ts": 不动摇, 不懈怠, 不折腾.

The China Daily translated this as "don't sway back and forth, relax our efforts or get sidetracked." Op-eds and blog posts over the past week have attempted to explain precisely what President Hu meant by 不折腾, and at a press conference yesterday, State Council Information Office Minister Wang Chen offered up his interpretation:

[In response to a reporter's question,] Wang Chen said, "General Secretary Hu Jintao's important speech at the 30th anniversary of the 3rd plenary session of the 11th Party Central Committee was profound in its ideological content, but it also contained vivid language drawn from the masses. I too noticed that when the General Secretary mentioned 'don't waver, don't slacken, don't get sidetracked,' the audience chuckled in understanding, showing that they truly endorsed President Hu's words.

Speaking of his own interpretation of the phrase, Wang raised his voice: "In my understanding, when General Secretary Hu said 'don't get sidetracked' at such a solemn occasion in which he was speaking for the Party Central Committee to sum up the experiences and lessons of the past thirty years, he wanted to express that the great successes achieved by the party and the people over the last thirty years of reforms were fundamentally an unwavering adherence to socialism with Chinese characteristics, an unwavering adherence to the theoretical system of socialism with Chinese charactistics. It is none other than this road and this theoretical system that will, over the next thirty or fifty years, allow China to achieve even greater successes and better development, and to stand tall among the peoples of the world."

Wang concluded by saying, "don't get sidetracked" means that we must advance courageously down this road, and it is indeed the wish of everyone in the country and the common will of the entire party.

That makes things a little clearer. However, there's still the issue of whether "don't get sidetracked" is the ideal translation of 不折腾. Yesterday's press conference didn't decide the issue:

Significantly, the interpreter simply rendered 不折腾 into pinyin, to the amusement of the entire assembly of journalists. Perhaps bu zheteng will become an English-language proper noun in the future.

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There are currently 19 Comments for Interpreting the wisdom of Hu Jintao.

Comments on Interpreting the wisdom of Hu Jintao

A couple of friends asked me for suggestions on how to translate 不折腾. These are the kind of moments that make you wish you'd never thought of becoming a translator -- there's a range of potential meanings, most of them possible interpretations absent a better context. I ended up suggesting "don't mess around" as a suitably (though extremely unsatisfyingly) vague stand-in, absent SCIO clarification.

I'm not sure that "don't get sidetracked" is the best interpretation here -- my Chinese friends mainly seemed to seize upon the "don't do things over and over again" aspect of 不折腾, which strikes me as being rather different. Then again, Wang is presumably privy to information that we lowly translators are not.

To be clear, I just used the China Daily translation in this post. "Don't get sidetracked" doesn't necessarily mesh with what Wang's saying. "Doing things over and over again" probably carries an implicit "to no effect"; many commentators have expanded the phrase to 不要穷折腾 or 不要瞎折腾, which General Secretary Hu may have meant but which didn't fit into his three-character pattern. A concise formulation of "don't flail about fruitlessly" would be nice....

Yeah, similar to you two I thought of "don't bugger about pointlessly" as a more UK vernacular might put it.
Made you wonder if it was in the tradition of deliberately vague and gnomic policy statements from on high so that the fine-tuning could be left to later practice without the embarrassment of being seen to have back-tracked completely.

Joel, this is a very interesting post. Thanks.

A Sina blogger Lan Weiwei has posted a very well-written article on this topic. I highly recommend it. Here is the link.

不折腾 = don't mess with the government

Thanks, C.A. Yeung. It looks like local government slogans have often equated 不折腾 with 不争论, as in 坚持在不争论中发展、在不折腾中前进 (link), and lots of other examples from the past few years of Baidu News.

Peteryang, I came across this, from a talk on sales and branding by Lu Changquan, a market analyst:


...and nobody wants that to happen.

1. Zhe's original oracle bone script is like this picture, which is 'an axe breaking a branch'. The modern Zhe conveys similar meanings which are 'break', 'reduce' or 'going down'.

2. The Chinese character Teng(pic) consists of three parts: left part 月 is a common component to tell the char is related to animals or meat; lower right part is 马, which is horse; upper right part probably means saddle and stirrup. Thus the very original meaning of Teng is 'ridding a horse'. Today Teng means 'jump' and 'going up'.

3. I searched the word Zheteng for a while in classic literature but had no luck, so the word probably has never been official until recently. Based on the meanings of Zhe and Teng, the whole word should literally be 'going up and down', 'turning back and forth' or 'increase for a while and decrease later'. For me, zheteng's most accurate translation is doing something useless again and again without learning the lesson from it.

What's the best English translation for this meaning? a slang?

Perfectly acceptable practice for an interpreter - the whole discussion is of that phrase and what it means, the context seems not to be enough, and there would be more murmurs if the interpreter were to attempt to second-guess people by throwing in one or the other English translation.

Much better than simply preparing a Pavlovian list of equivalent words for all these things, a la Foreign Ministry.

不要折騰: Don't flail about.

The three could be translated as

Do not waver, do not slack off, do not flail about.

Blatant plagiarism!

"We will not waiver, we will not tire, we will not falter and we will not fail. Peace and Freedom will prevail"

--President George W. Bush
Oct 7, 2001

"Don't faff about.

mess with, mess around, toss about, etc.

I translate articles for the People's Daily Website. I first translated it as "Don't dither, don't slack off, don't get sidetracked". We ended up with waver because dither may remind some of Gordon Brown. I also suggested "slack" instead of "slack off" because that would rhyme with "sidetracked" - that idea was quickly jetisoned.
I strongly agree with some of the looser interpretations above, however, much to my chagrin, I am not allowed translate in this way[properly] at work.

A more literal translation should be "don't fidget", but with Party lingo, any other interpretation is possible. Reminds me of the more colorful linguistic tidbits from Mao Zedong.

Three Days of 不折騰:

don't mess around
don't get sidetracked
don't do things over and over again
don't flail about fruitlessly
don't bugger about pointlessly
don't mess with the government
doing something useless again and again without learning the lesson from it
don't flail about (do not flail about)
don't faff about
mess with, mess around, toss about, etc.
don't fidget

IMHO contextually Hu is saying "Without Consternation".

How about this?

Without Waver
Without Complacency
Without Consternation

My main man in Guangzhou, Chen Yang (陈 Sir) got sacked for talking about this phrase on his TV show. He tried to translate it into Cantonese as 不炒豆 (Roland mentions this in his ESWN blog)

Here is a Guangzhou netizen's reaction, which was swiftly removed by nanny censors but still exists in Google cache:

再看这条报道真吓人,“不折腾”译法难倒国际媒体,纪念改革开放30周年,软妹子总书记发表重要讲话,他说,只要我们不动摇,不懈怠,不折腾,坚定不移地推进改革开放,坚定不移地走中国特色的社会主义道路,就一定能够胜利实现,这一宏伟蓝图和奋斗目标,结果这句不折腾,难倒了国内外媒体界的翻译精英,这句不折腾到底要怎么译呢?怎么译也译得不像,因为折腾这词,别说译成普通话,译成广州话也很难。我想了很久,这条新闻昨天在网上就有了,我就在想,我们没那么高的水平,就不译英文了,我们来译广州话,你说该怎么译呢?后来我想了想,想到一个最差的答案,各位先别骂我,我把它译成不炒豆,炒豆是不是有点折腾的意思呢?肯定是不准的了,但比交不了功课要好,不炒豆。如果软妹子总书记知道我这样子来翻译,一定会骂我,但这是没办法的事。国新办,也就是国务院新闻办公室,干脆说没办法了,用拼音直译,记者问他怎么样译成外文,他说“bu zheteng”,不是不折腾,如果不折腾,就是中国人也不会说中文,而是“bu zheteng”,只能这样了。但是我觉得这的确有个好处,不折腾由于不懂得翻译,结果成为万众瞩目的新词,说可能以后牛津字典也会收录进去,叫做“bu zheteng”,使得我们对不折腾,有一个更加深刻的向往和认识,老百姓不要折腾了,该怎样就怎样。还有各级官员你们不要折腾了,老老实实,全心全意为人民服务,另外一个译法能否译成不搞事呢?也等于不折腾的意思,大家都是脚踏实地,该当官就当官,该做老百姓的做老百姓,搞好它,不折腾。如果又炒豆又搞事,我们改革开放特别在金融危机之下,怎么搞得它定呢?肯定是搞它不定的。

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