Eurasia Newsletter

bringing the minds of Asia, Canada and Europe together

Month: June, 2014

Chinese-Canadian Odyssey

People in Canada who know about the mass exodus from Hong Kong coming up to 1999 which led many immigrants to Vancouver and Toronto may be surprised to hear of a recent survey reported in the Globe and Mail. It looked at young Chinese-Canadians now moving in the opposite direction – going to Hong Kong to work. Well, it may be that the return of Hong Kong to the Middle Kingdom was not such an apocalyptic disaster as some people were forecasting. But it is interesting to see that things have gone so far that Hong Kong is attracting Chinese-Canadians back. And it makes for sobering thoughts when you ask why this is happening.

The study authors find that “Canadian-trained immigrants see more opportunity in their parents’ native countries, either because they feel discriminated against in Canada, or because the allure of success abroad is too great”.

Every Canada Day (July 1), which we are now celebrating, there is a great deal of trumpeting (in English Canada at least) about multiculturalism and how that is the new reality and the future of the country. Yet how open is Canada really, if young people born there feel they have to leave to get a decent job? That they feel alienated, and even squeezed out? According to the study, “almost all the participants had multicultural groups of friends growing up, but began to hang out more with other Chinese-Canadians in high school, and continued to do so throughout university”.

On the other hand, having grown up in Vancouver or Toronto, they don’t feel all that much at home in Hong Kong. The study found that they “tended to hang out with expatriate Chinese-Canadians or other non-Chinese expatriates. They drink coffee and watch Vancouver Canucks hockey games on their mobile phones during breaks at work.”

So today’s international mobility is clearly an advantage for young people, as this study indicates, but it also sounds something of a warning note for Canada Day, doesn’t it?

 

 

Hieroglossia

A Japanese professor has remarked that his people have Chinese writing “in their cultural DNA”. Indeed, Japan is part of the Sinocentric world, and its wonderful culture, though distinct, is inconceivable without all the arts of civilisation learned from the mainland over centuries of coexistence.

The Japanese writing system is the best illustration of this. The Chinese ideograms are pronounced not as Chinese but as the equivalent Japanese words. And these Chinese ideograms have been supplemented – but not replaced – by a sort of syllabic writing that better expresses the very different structure of the Japanese language.

French scholar Jean-Noël Robert describes the historic relationship of Chinese to Japanese as “hieroglossia”. In such situations, he says, the civilising language learned from outside is regarded as a sacred language that guarantees the rightness of the civilised language that emulates it. Chinese was regarded as a perfect language for designating the world, and Japanese, because it used Chinese characters, also came to be regarded as a perfect expression of the world.

As Robert points out, the civilised language comes to participate in the sacredness of the sacred language through the process of translation and adaptation, and becomes sacred in its turn. This was true of Japanese in relation to Chinese, just as, in the West, Hebrew, the sacred language of the Bible, through translation, lent a mantle of sacredness to Greek, which then lent a mantle of sacredness to Latin.

This hieroglossia, as Robert further points out, involves more than what we know as translation. In the case of translation, the translated version replaces the original text in the source language. The reader, because he has the translation, can forget about the original. But here we have a kind of ongoing symbiosis. We are dealing with languages that don’t go away after translation but remain present, still embedded in the language that is supposed to replace them.

 

The two-edged sword of imposed multilingualism

In his article “From Englishization to Imposed Multilingualism”, Israeli academic Danny Dor talks about language on the Internet. Is English taking over the world as a result of the communications revolution, as many people believe, or could there be something else going on? Dor says large American companies really impose multilingualism as part of their globalization strategy. They know that their product, or at least the software and documentation that run it, has to be translated into all sorts of “local” languages so that consumers in other countries will use it.

If he is right, the Internet means not drowning in English but getting a boost for other languages. However, Dor makes another interesting point. He says that these international players themselves are likely to replace the “local” apparatus of dictionaries and academies as the source of standards for the various national languages. Thus power and control over languages may be redistributed.

Haven’t we seen all this before? When the Reformation happened in Europe, the pressure was on from the Reformers to translate the Bible into all sorts of languages so that ordinary folks could understand it. In doing so, the Reformers in each country often created new standard literary languages from scratch. What’s more, minor regional languages got a boost, because they were written down for the first time in Bibles and the endless religious propaganda being fired between Reformers and Counter-Reformers. This was surely the first instance of “imposed multilingualism”. And it altered the linguistic landscape of Europe in ways that its instigators could hardly have foreseen.

Translation can alter power relations in the world, but it all depends on who is doing the translating, and from what language into what language. When someone has power, his language will be the source language; for everyone else, their languages will be the target languages. They will hear his message in their own language, but they probably won’t get to send their messages back to him. I would expect that most translation in the world now involves content being translated from English into other languages, not the reverse. English is “upstream”, the other languages are “downstream”. The ideas, the trends, the innovations come from the upstream language, not from the downstream ones. This is not because the upstream language or those who speak it are superior, but just that water doesn’t flow uphill. And the downstream languages, over time, are likely to be altered and reshaped by the pressure of the upstream language.

So the English-speaking world, though it may be imposing multilingualism as Dor says, may well get to reshape all those languages in its own image. Some will be more resistant than others, of course.

 

Technical writers as negotiators of culture

How does culture enter into the job of the technical writer? There is a tendency to restrict the discussion unduly by focussing on the issue of keeping culture-specific elements out of technical manuals intended for an international audience. In my view, culture is a much bigger factor in the writing business than just that. What I have to say is particularly true for those technical writers who work in an international environment. But most of the industries we work in today are so globalized anyway that there must be fewer and fewer of us who don’t deal with people outside our own borders. I would suggest that the factor of culture comes up for many technical writers in the following activities:

  1. dealing with colleagues, subject matter interviewees, suppliers and other external business partners who belong to different cultures;
  2. adapting a wide range of texts (not just manuals) to suit different cultures;
  3. writing in English if their own culture is not Anglo-Saxon – an increasingly common situation in many countries.

The official job of a technical writer may be to write manuals – but their unofficial job is often that of being a communications facilitator and trouble-shooter in the organization. That has been my experience anyway. On the other hand, technical writers often come to this role without much knowledge of cultural factors in communication. Technical writers who learn English as a foreign language are often no more aware of cultural differences in any detail than English-speaking tech writers who write for international audiences.

Technical writers should inform themselves about culture and cultural issues so they can contribute to improving international business communication generally. They should familiarize themselves with, and reflect on, the differences between their own culture and other cultures they may be dealing with in the course of their work. I would suggest that they can make a contribution to international business – a real one, albeit a modest one – by taking on these tasks:

  1. systematically review and edit (as required) all texts written by colleagues for readers of a different culture (whether the target is your own culture or another one);
  2. sensitize colleagues about cultural issues in the workplace on a day-to-day basis, mainly by pointing out the cultural dimension of a communication problem if no-one else seems to realize it;
  3. provide consulting support (even unofficially) to your company’s executives and CEO: become a resource person for these people when cultural sensitivity is needed in a particular instance, say, negotiating an important international deal, or managing relations with a foreign “key account”;
  4. build a network of “native informants” for different cultures and enlist their help whenever you are dealing with their particular culture.