Translation Matters: Problems of Inference in Assessments of China's Intentions

As the US gears up for the ‘great power competition’ with China, accurate translation of Chinese sources is increasingly important. Different translations can lead to different inferences about intentions, which in turn can affect policy analysis. In this talk Professor Johnston looks at a key inference in recent US policy documents about China’s long-term intentions, an inference that is based, in part, on a problematic translation and decontextualization of key phrases in a speech by China’s leader, Xi Jinping. This same translation has also been invoked by analysts and pundits to argue that there is no more need to debate China’s long-term intensions. A more contextualized reading of these key phrases suggests that they do not support any particular inference about long-term goals. The takeaway ‒ given the issues at stake in the ‘great power competition’, analysts should think about setting up a translation review process where potentially analytically significant and policy-relevant translations are subject to double blind peer review, something akin to an academic product.

Alastair Iain Johnston is a professor in the Government Department at Harvard University. He is the author of Cultural Realism: Strategic Culture and Grand Strategy in Chinese History (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1995) and Social States: China in International Institutions, 1980‒2000 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2008), as well as articles on identity, strategic culture, and socialization theory, mostly with application to China’s international relations.