• Sijin Xian

On Translating "Cancel" and Why You Need A U.S.-Based Chinese Translator

Joker star Joaquin Phoenix's thought-provoking acceptance speech at the Oscars has gone viral. And I've seen several Chinese translations going around on the Internet. However, it seems that one particular word is tripping many up, and I have yet to see a version where the translator demonstrates a precise understanding of the word "cancel."


Here's the text I'm referring to:

"I think that's when we're at our best: when we support each other. Not when we cancel each other out for our past mistakes, but when we help each other to grow."


And here are some renditions I have seen:

不因为过去的错误而相互抵消;

不因过去的错误而彼此对立;

不再为了曾经的过错相互对峙;

不因过往错误而彼此排挤.


The first one translated "cancel out" in the sense of neutralization, as in sugar cancels out acidity, which is unfortunately nonsensical in this context. The rest are considerably better, incorporating the idea of opposing or alienating one another. However, I'm still missing that sense of hot-headed unforgivingness and blanket rejection that Phoenix has issues with when it comes to today's cancel culture, which is more like 抵制封杀 in Chinese.


And here's the thing. Language moves so much faster than dictionaries can catch up. If you don't live in the English-speaking world and don't regularly spend some time on Twitter, you simply can't grasp the cultural background and implication of this word by consulting old Mr. Webster. That's why translators who live in a country where their source language (the language they translate from) is spoken are uniquely positioned to appreciate the larger picture of a phrase, an expression, or a choice of words so that the translated words are accurate in meaning, register, and diction.

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