The First Word War between US and China — Mandarin Interpreting is a Tough Job

By U.S. Department of State from United States.

“Strength” or “Power”

There has been voluminous analysis of the China-US Dialogue in Alaska recently – it’s still going on.

Condescending, hegemonic, hypocritical, arrogant, embarrassing (and that’s just about the US side).

Part of the problem, as I see it, resulted from several mistranslations, including “from a position of strength” in Chinese – “从实力角度与中国交往” (Cóng shílì jiǎodù yǔ zhōngguó jiāowǎng).

Linguistically, in Chinese 实力 (shílì ) means strength or power, eg 经济实力jīngjì shílì: economic power or实力派 shílì pài: someone  with strength and power. This is a case of a Chinese term having several meanings in English and the wrong one being taken. The Chinese came to the meeting thinking one thing, the Americans believed something else. In Chinese, the sentence “The US has to approach China from a position of strength” was understood in Chinese to mean: The US is using its current power and strength to deal with China, i.e. suppress, force, coerce, or even crush it, thus the following statement made by State Councillor Yang:

“Well, isn’t this the intention of the United States – judging from what, or the way that you have made your opening remarks – that it wants to speak to China in a condescending way from a position of strength? …

So let me say here that, in front of the Chinese side, the United States does not have the qualification to say that it wants to speak to China from a position of strength. The US side was not even qualified to say such things even 20 years or 30 years back, because this is not the way to deal with the Chinese people. If the United States wants to deal properly with the Chinese side, then let’s follow the necessary protocols and do things the right way.”

The original translation for this term was “从实力角度与中国交往” (Cóng shílì jiǎodù yǔ zhōngguó jiāowǎng) over which furious discussions and numerous reports erupted in the Chinese media, as well as strong opposition from government officials. The correct translation should have been: “站在有利的地位与中国交往”( zhàn zài yǒulì de shìwǎngmó yǔ zhōngguó jiāowǎng) or”以扬长避短的方式与中国交往(yǐ yángchángbìduǎn de fāngshì yǔ zhōngguó jiāowǎng), as demonstrated when Blinken said: “the United States’ relationship with China will be competitive where it should be, collaborative where it can be, adversarial where it must be.

What is the origin of the misunderstanding?

At the 2021 Virtual Munich Security Conference, President Biden said:

“Achieving these goals is going to depend on a core strategic proposition, and that is: The United States must renew America’s enduring advantages so that we can meet today’s challenges from a position of strength. That means building back better our economic foundations; reclaiming our place in international institutions; lifting up our values at home, and speaking out to defend them around the world; modernizing our military capabilities while leading with diplomacy; revitalizing America’s network of alliances and partnerships that have made the world safer for all people.”

Biden, in fact, was indicating that America had a lot of work to do in order to meet current challenges. The Chinese took the word ‘from’ to mean that America was trying to approach them with their strengths now, but this is not what Biden meant – all of the things he referred to were weaknesses to be improved in the future, to meet the challenges facing them now and in the future.

On 20 January, the incoming US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken also said that America needs to approach the challenge from a “position of strength, not weakness”, which was similar to those oft-quoted words of Deng Xiaoping more than 30 years ago when he said: “hide our capabilities and bide our time” (韬光养晦 tāoguāngyǎnghuì) which in fact meant that China was weak and needed time to build up – it’s a similar sentiment to the one used by Biden.

Certainly this has impacted China’s verbal response and its policy position towards America moving forward. It goes to underline the importance of language and translation in international relations.

What would you “expect”

The second misunderstanding came after the Alaska talks at a Press Briefing by Press Secretary Jen Psaki on 22 March, when she answered a question:

Q: – the Chinese delegation in Alaska. Did the President get what he wanted out of that meeting? Does he have any response to what came from it? And where does it leave the countries now, going forward? For instance, is the prospect of some sort of bilateral meeting between President Biden and President Xi now more or less likely? Is there anything you can give us on that?

Ms Psaki: Well, we expected tough and direct talks with the PRC on a wide range of issues, and that’s exactly what happened.

On the same day, in Chinese media, including the Global Times and on TV, it was reported as follows:



[Translation of the Chinese text]

The White House has suddenly made an important statement: Expecting/Hoping to strengthen talks with China – the most direct talks!

On 22nd March local time, at the White House daily press briefing, the White House Press Secretary Psaki said that the United States is expecting/hoping to strengthen direct dialogue with China on a wide range of issues. (The White House has suddenly made an important statement: Expecting/hoping to strengthen talks with China – the most direct talks!)

Facts – the source of the misunderstanding is grammar

The US in English language: We expected direct talks – we had them.

China in Chinese language: After the talks, the US is expecting/hoping to have the most direct talks with us, they want to strengthen dialogue with us – the US is coming to us.


Mandarin interpreters at intense dialogues like the Alaska meeting are under huge pressure and don’t always receive briefings or speeches in advance. As we saw in the introductory remarks, speakers are not always considerate of the job interpreters do and can speak for extended periods, at a fast pace, and not assist the interpreter with advance information. I am not sure where the misunderstanding originated in these instances.

The standard of English spoken in China varies greatly from the highly trained diplomatic level to the “best English speaker we have”, which may have been the problem in the second instance and that person may not be a trained translator at all. A small misunderstanding based on grammar may turn into another large problem in the relationship.

As we always say, translation (and interpreting) are valued professions and it is important to use professionals who are trained and experienced, also to include them in briefings and provide them with background information.  The results will speak for themselves.


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