• Sijin Xian

On Translating "Washington, D.C." and "Lawful"

Updated: Feb 3, 2020

Believe it or not, in my five years of living in Washington D.C. and thereabouts, I had never realized until yesterday that the Chinese translation for the place is really thoughtful and wise.

Here's what you need to know about translating places into Chinese: the larger a geographic concept, the more prominent it should be by being placed in the front. For example, my hometown Chengdu, Sichuan in Chinese would be "Sichuan Chengdu (四川成都)," or "Sichuan Province, Chengdu City (四川省成都市)." Similarly, my husband's hometown Rockford, Illinois would be instinctively referred to by my mom as "America, Illinois, Rockford."

When I was translating a US passport for a client yesterday, I felt the temptation to put "Washington, D.C." in the name of the issuing agency as "District of Columbia, Washington" in Chinese (哥伦比亚特区华盛顿). The problem, of course, is that D.C. and Washington are equals geographically -- the entirety of District of Columbia is the entirety of Washington. That's why in Chinese the place is translated as "华盛顿哥伦比亚特区," which is the same order as in English because the above-mentioned translation rule is no longer applicable!

Unfortunately, another thing I noticed when translating the passport was probably the opposite of thoughtfulness: many translators seem to fail to correctly understand the word "lawful" in "[t]he Secretary of State...requests all whom it may concern....to give all lawful aid and protection." In many cases, the segment is mistranslated into "provide legitimate aid and protection (提供合法援助和保护)," while the correct rendition should be "provide aid and protection in accordance with the law (依法提供援助和保护)."



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