Wednesday, January 07, 2004

I Can't Explain
Letters. We get letters at the Shezhen Daily. Not many, though, because the editorial page only runs once weekly, on Monday, but a couple we've received lately are good examples of how frustrating the communication gap can be, especially when you're putting out a newspaper aimed at two different readerships: native English speakers and people who think they are.
I've dubbed it "one newspaper, two systems," taking a cue from Deng Xiaopeng's description of China and Hong Kong's relationship as "one government, two systems." My Chinese colleagues didn't think it's particularly funny (one told me not to let any senior editors hear it) but Jeff thought it was hilarious.
The first letter was from a retired English professor at Shenzhen University - a not-quite venerable institution that, in my admittedly limited exposure to it, seems to combine Ivy League pretensions with the rigorous academic standards of Mr. Ling's Third Floor School of Surgery and Nail Care.
The professor, whom I will call Dr. Xiao., was quite upset at a word we had used to describe a recent massive gas well explosion. The word was "blowout". Dr. Xiao could not find "blowout" in his three English dictionaries - which, as it turned out, were all written and edited by other Chinese professors - and believed that it was either a misprint of some sort or an inexcusable use of vulgar slang.
Whatever it was, it was obviously a grievous error that must be corrected at the earliest possible opportunity.
As is the norm, I could hear the top editors discussing Dr. Xiao's fiery missive for quite awhile before they bothered to ask the person who had written the headline: me.
"BlahblahblahChinese-speak-blahBLOWOUT! BLOWOUT? BLOWOUT!?blahblahChinese-speakblah, etc."
When finally consulted, I told them that it was a perfectly acceptable term and even pointed to definition number two: "A sudden escape of a confined gas or liquid, as from a well" in my American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition.
That did not end the discussion. I was asked several more times during the day. The page in my dictionary with "blowout" was photocopied and there was more blahblahblahBLOWOUT? handwringing at odd intervals for hours.
It arose yet again several days later in a Monday morning staff meeting where we point out errors in the previous week's edition. Again I reassurred them. Yet it took 8-10 minutes of heated discussion among themselves to finally resolve it.
I could not figure out why a cranky letter from a retired prof with way too much time and not enough information on his hands would cause so much consternation. No one would tell me and I only found out by happenstance later that Dr. Xiao is also an "English language advisor" to the paper's board.
God help us, I thought.
The second letter concerned a photo caption that foreign barbarian coworker Jeff had written. It showed a couple kissing. The original caption read: "Couple kisses" and went on with some small details about them and why they were kissing.
Jeff changed "Couple kisses" to "Lip service' - a mildly amusing choice, I thought. And, as Jeff pointed out later, "You can already see it's a bloody 'couple kissing' in the bloody picture!"
This time it was a "Mr. Yu -- Senior English Translator" ripping us a new one. Written primarily in Chinese and sprinkled with English, it took the SZ Daily severely to task for using "lip service" in this manner. To make his point he had provided us with photocopies of definitions of "lip service" - none of which, of course, involved kissing. He ended this diatribe with a pithy quote from Homer (the poet, not Simpson) and the astute zinger that a Chinese person must have written this cutline because no English speaker would ever make such a blunder.
More handwringing. More soul searching. More consultations among themselves. Finally they asked me because Jeff wasn't in yet.
I explained that it was supposed to be humorous and a play on words. I painfully deconstructed why it was supposed to be funny, why it was a play on words and why it was OK to use it.
Jeff arrived later and was also interrogated. Hours later, following more phone calls and internal soul searching we were asked - together this time - to explain yet again why it was OK to use "lip service" as a term for an act that was not defined in the dictionary.
"English changes too fast," one reporter who had overheard a lot of this observed. "Every day it seems there are new words and new meanings. It is not so easy for us to know."
"It's the nature of the beast," I replied, instantly regretting my choice of words.
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