In my job I am regularly exposed to Chinese press releases from various sources (often not my clients, I hasten to add). We sometimes send these releases for translation into English for our clients. As one of the few native English speakers in the office, I am often asked to edit the spotty results.
A translated Chinese press release does not read like one written in English. A tendency towards hyperbolic self-congratulation is aggravated by translators who reach for the grandest available English word. The result can be accidentally magnificent, like an imperial proclamation gone commercial. When forwarding translations to English speaking execs I often attach a warning that a Chinese release will not be what they are used to, in either language or structure.
The dismal nature of many press releases aside, translations don’t do justice to original authors. Translation is a dark art, and there is a big difference between a literal, word-for-word translation and a skillful transliteration that preserves both meaning and style. I can only read a thousand or so Chinese characters, so I can’t refer to originals when I am editing. At least, not easily. This adds a touch of divining to the task, as I try to gaze through the translation and perceive what the author meant to say. This is highly subjective, and sometimes the result is a punt.
But the vagaries of translation can’t hide the formula. And it’s not just Chinese press releases that are worthy of deconstruction. A cruise of the China websites of many multinationals reveals press releases written in English but often as odd and formulaic as their Chinese counterparts.
With that in mind, I have mocked up an abbreviated, “parallel” press release that shows the different ways in which Chinese and American partners companies might each announce the same event and identifies some of the classic China press release elements.
Shaanxi Veeblefetzer* (Joint Venture) Corporation and American partner General Widget plan joint product launch
Paragraph 1: The Lede
- Chinese company opens with breathless enthusiasm, sings its own praises for a full paragraph before getting to the news hook, and begins machine-gun repetition of its own name. News (or lack thereof) takes back-seat to hyperbole. Translation creates appalling run-on sentences.
Beijing, March 10, 2006: Shaanxi Veeblefetzer* (Joint Venture) Corporation is China’s leading widget company, producing exquisite and widely admired widgets for incorporation into the products of many global enterprises. Shaanxi Veeblefetzer is a joint venture between Xiao Jing Hogfarms (twenty percent owned by Eurohog AG) and the Shaanxi Provincial Government Bureau of Pointless Devices. It has long been one of China’s most progressive organizations, achieving business success while properly adhering to the tenets of Mao Zedong thought, Deng Xiaoping Theory, the Three Represents, the Theory of Scientific Development, the development of the New Socialist Countryside, and any other political theories or frameworks that may be advanced by the Standing Committee between now and when this press release is issued, but excepting any that are later discredited.
Shaanxi Veeblefetzer (Joint Venture) Corporation today announced that its 2005 model widget, jointly produced with America’s General Widget Corporation, would be greeted with enthusiasm by a global market pregnant with expectation. Audiences from all nations have clamored indefatigably for Shaanxi Veeblefetzer widgets since first learning that the new model would be designed and manufactured to exacting standards, in order to meet the highest demands of the international widget marketplace.
- American company opens matter-of-factly, lulling you with professionalism and numbers-driven news value.
Beijing, March 10, 2006: General Widget Corporation (NYSE: GWG) and Chinese partner Shaanxi Veeblefetzer (Joint Venture) Corp. today announced plans to jointly develop and manufacture the next generation of general purpose widgets. The combination of General Widget’s design expertise with Shaanxi Veeblefetzer’s low manufacturing costs will enable both companies to take advantage of a global widget market forecast to grow at more than 10% annually over the next five years.
Paragraph 2: Lofty Credentials
- Chinese company demonstrates potential to command the global market. Ambition is laid bare.
Made from glittering and abundant Shaanxi raw materials, copiously provided by the enthusiastic and legally compensated laborers of Shaanxi Veeblefetzer’s extractive industry partners, the 2005 model Shaanxi Veeblefetzer widget is boldly designed to consolidate the fortunes of Shaanxi Veeblefetzer Corporation for many decades.
- American company demonstrates current command of the global market. Jargon is laid bare.
Founded by widget inventor Ebenezer Sklyde in 1776, General Widget has been the world’s leading designer and manufacturer of widgets for over 200 years. The joint venture with Shaanxi Veeblefetzer will enable General Widget to leverage manufacturing synergies to capture an increasing share of the surging China market and to satisfy growing global demand for widgets that deliver more value to business and consumer widget users.
Paragraph 3: The Companies Quote Themselves
- Chinese company inserts a CEO quote. Slight, institutional inferiority complex is revealed. Overzealous translation of already formal quote language yields Olympian sounding proclamation.
Wang Jinlong, Founder, Chairman, President and CEO of Shaanxi Veeblefetzer (Joint Venture) Corporation, said, “Shaanxi Veeblefetzer (Joint Venture) Corporation will provoke constant fascination in the global widget market by striding forward to assume the rightful place of Chinese widget manufacturers on the worldwide stage. It is without precedent that such a superlative widget is envisioned and fashioned by a Shaanxi company that now equates in operational excellence to many international leaders in the widget industry. This is the culmination of our strategic machinations, and the imminent showering of largesse upon our shareholders fills us with insuperable satisfaction.”
- American company inserts a CEO quote. Designed to show that the American CEO is a China hand who understands a market impenetrable to less gifted souls. Complementary of China, in case government officials read the release. Demonstrates social commitment to China to minimize possibilities of a nationalist outburst.
Butch McSwindle, CEO of General Widget, said, “I’ve been coming to China since I was lad, and over the years I’ve had a chance to see first-hand the tremendous, economic progress of this great land. Now I’m pleased that General Widget will play such a critical role in helping China’s widget industry to take its next great stride.” Mr. McSwindle also announced that General Widget would be launching a new charitable program in China dedicated to rescuing rural orphans who have fallen into abandoned well-shafts. “It’s a gesture from the bottom of our hearts, and not cynical at all,” he added.
Paragraph 4: The Companies Quote Each Other
- Chinese company writes a quote for the American CEO in which he lavishes praise on the Chinese company.
Leading executives from Shaanxi Veeblefetzer’s American joint venture partner, General Widget, a Fortune 100 company, also expressed their satisfaction at the impending release of the jointly developed widget. “We weep with joy at the prospect of this magnificent occasion for Shaanxi Veeblefetzer (Joint Venture) corporation,” said CEO Butch McSwindle. “I have directed our entire company staff to earnestly study Wang Jinlong thought that we may better understand Shaanxi management acuity.”
- American company writes a quote for the Chinese CEO in which he lavishes praise on the American company.
Shaanxi Veeblefetzer CEO Wang Jinlong said, “We’re humbled to work with a surpassing, global leader like General Widget. This is a great opportunity for us to sit demurely at the feet of one of the world’s industrial colossi and be schooled in the intricacies of global business, which have long mystified us. General Widget’s timeless dedication to China is a source of pride and warmth for me and all employees of Shaanxi Veeblefetzer.”
The language above is exaggerated, of course, although not as much as you might think. But the formula is real enough, if slightly condensed. In truth, both Chinese companies and American companies in China are getting better, but enough dismal crap crosses my desk to remind me that there are always some offenders yet to be reformed.
Why does this happen? All press releases are formula to a degree. The objectives are usually clear, and there is a well established rhythm to getting through the essential elements; ledes, quotes, background, etc. a well written one does the job quickly, efficiently, and with a minimum of fuss. The reverse pyramid, as we all learn in flack school.
But in China, where companies often have to both deal with the vagaries of translation and reconcile the basic function of a press release –telling your story to the media– with a host of dueling concerns, from satisfying face-obsessed bosses to satisfying the government, the results can often be mysterious and fascinating. The state-owned pedigree of many companies and much media also means that different rhythms of communication and different expectations have evolved, although a more western model is slowly becoming prevalent. As a good friend of mine with long China experience once said, “the Chinese don’t understand PR. They understand face.” Think of it as another example of PR with Chinese characteristics.
Now, don’t get me started on boilerplates.
*Apologies to Mad Magazine.