Australia in the Asian Century, Not

by Translation Guy on December 6, 2012

Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard got egg foo young on her face with the release of the Australian Government’s Chinese translation of a white paper, “Australia in the Asian Century.”

Chinese readers claimed that the white paper translation “contained broken sentences, grammar and syntax errors, inappropriate vocabulary and incomprehensible expressions,” reports Samantha Maiden in Sydney’s Sunday Telegraph. One anonymous Chinese student in Australia was quoted in the paper, “It’s kind of unbelievable. I was ready to cry when I read it. It just looked like they asked some random University student to translate. It is reasonable to suspect that the person who translated this white paper relied heavily on Google Translate, not their Asian language skills.” (Tears aside, “Smells like MT” is always the last refuge of amateur translation critics.)

But the translation really was awful. Problems went beyond poor word choice. Meaning was changed in translation — the cardinal sin of our trade. For shame!

So “highly skilled workforce,” is translated as “army of labor.” The term “pathways” was somehow localized to refer to a famous mountain in Hunan province. Nice touch.

Fortunately or ironically, depending on your point of view, the white paper itself urges greater efforts on the part of the Aussies to learn Chinese. Fair dinkum. Right now, more Australians are studying Latin than are studying Chinese, and it shows. Which suggests that the Prime Minister’s office is fine communicating with the Vatican, in contrast to their cluelessness in Chinese.

Chinese>English translator Phil Hand sums up the view of the translation industry on the forum. “I’m shocked, I tell you, shocked. Because standards are normally so high in my pair. How could this have happened?”

Officials have adopted the “a dingo ate my baby” defense, claiming that they used an approved translation service who managed to screw it up anyway.

But that’s not really where the translation buck stops, is it? For such a bad job, we can be pretty certain of a failure cascade, rather than just a single screw up. Let’s imagine… Policymakers unable to complete bloviation by deadline, so the schedule slips. Translation as an afterthought. Ad hoc recruitment of a translation service by an unqualified purchasing agent. Lack of coordination with agency to set up a workflow that includes a review by China experts, if such creatures exist Down Under. (I think the Aussies have a Foreign Ministry, don’t they?) Straight to press without a proof. And a vendor who lets it happen. Sounds like standard operating procedure to me, and not just Down Under, but up over here too.


  1. Lorna says:

    I really do hate that dingo joke, an actual mother lost her child, it’s tasteless.

  2. It’s a government document, I work in government, no one actually reads these damn things outside of pedants. Lawmakers don’t even read the damn bills the turn into law.

    • Ken says:

      Agreed. I used to spend days and weeks writing stuff like that. So pointless.

  3. Deb says:

    Oh, this is just hilarious, bloody Aussies. I pretty sure it’s someone named Bruce’s fault.

  4. Kathy says:

    If I were an Australian taxpayer, I would be absolutely livid.

  5. Michael says:

    I can’t imagine that the Aussies would do such piss poor job given the stakes, and offend the notoriously high strung Chinese, I just can’t. I honestly think they got sold a bill og goods on this one.

  6. Phil Jeidels says:

    This is a bit hyperbolic, experts have said that the translation was certainly readable if not necessarily of the highes standard, really it was about poor word choices in some select places.

  7. I’ve worked for o/e enrepreneur, and it can be frustrating when you realize there are no plans or strategies for some things.

  8. You would think given how dependent the Australian economy is on China, the would have put the extra effort in ensuring it was the best that they could produce.

  9. Shocking, government incompetence. Who saw that one coming?

    • Ken says:

      But this is the Asian Century, Osmara!

  10. Helena says:

    They can localize “pathways” to refer to a specific place in Chinese, or is the name of the mountain some derivative of the word? I know nothing about Chinese.

  11. I certainly hope that this is a cascade of failure as you put it, because if this is actual work produced by a reputable translation service under no extenuating circumstances, well it’s just tragic. I’m not sure which side dropped the ball, but someone certainly did.

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