Poor Chinese-English translations cause a diplomatic melt down. Translators Repent!

Author:  Charles Qin

“Men shall deal unadvisedly sometimes, which after hours gives leisure to repent”, wrote Shakespeare

Replace ‘deal unadvisedly’ with ‘produce terrible translations’ and you get the picture! That is my contention.

Let me set out the case in English:

In the last couple of days, the mainstream media in Australia has been covering the news that Federal MPs Hastie and Paterson cannot visit China.

The topic as reported by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) on 18 November 2019 is “Andrew Hastie, James Paterson reject China’s request to ‘repent’ for criticism of Communist Party”.

The BBC even reported on the issue on 17 November: “Australian Politicians Banned from China ‘will not repent’ for Criticism”.

The headline on Sky News’ Facebook: “We will not repent’: Liberal MP Andrew Hastie hits out at China ban”.

The word that appears repeatedly in English is “repent”, and most reports also use quotation marks to indicate that the word was not translated by them.

Looking at the official website of the Chinese Embassy in Australia, we find that the original Chinese uses the word “fanxing” (反省).

What is the feeling you get from the English word “repent”?  When searching for “repent” in Google, the following appears automatically:

The first six results of a Google search are:

Except for items 4 and 5 which are dictionary definitions, everything else is related to the Bible.

As we can see from these screenshots, the word “repent” is related to Christian confessions in the English context.  Although in the dictionary, the word “repent” also has the meaning of “regret for extreme behaviour”, it is not commonly used in that sense. Do you sense a case of ‘google translate’ or just poor word choice or something more sinister?

In the last couple of days Australian Rugby player Israel Folau made a speech saying: “Australia legalised same sex marriage and abortions, God thus punishes Australia through bushfires and droughts. He said: Australia, you need to repent”.  His words aroused criticism from people of all walks of life in Australia, including the Prime Minister, and he was using the word with its religious underpinning.

Senator Hastie himself did not demonstrate his religion, although his father was a pastor.  Some people  have called him a “religious nut job” because of his conduct.  Mr Paterson said he was “agnostic”, that is, God may or may not exist, i.e. unknown and probably unknowable.  Due to their cultural backgrounds, looking at the word “repent”, they may hold the same view as most English readers, that is, repent means contrition of their sins, clean their souls, and get purified and reborn. There is no reason to use “repent” in the circumstances around their proposed China trip.

The media release issued by the Chinese Embassy uses the word ” fanxing – reflection” and does not have the above meaning.  Fanxing means reflect upon one’s own thoughts and behaviour and check for mistakes.  The English “reflection on/reflection/self-reflection” may be more suitable for this semantic meaning.

For example:

请反省一下自己的行为。(Qing fanxing yīxià zìji de xíngwéi.)

Please reflect on your behaviour.

企业也自我 反省 , 逐 渐形成“企业社会责任”观念。(Qiyè yě zìwo fanxing, zhújiàn xíngchéng “qiyè shèhuì zérèn” guānniàn.)

Many businesses also reflect on their mission and cultivate a sense of ‘enterprise social responsibility’.

So translation is in the news again and you can see how a translator’s word choice impacts at a national or even international level; as with swimmer Sun Yang, errors in translation can have serious repercussions.


“You have supported us every step of the way. CHIN is the best of the best.”

— La Trobe Financial


Got a question? We’d love to hear from you


Level 4, 221 Queen Street, Melbourne 3000
GPO Box 2231, Melbourne 3001

P. 1300 792 446
F. 03 9670 0766


"*" indicates required fields