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Lost in translation, all 8,000 characters of it

April 28th, 2009 6 comments

The New York Times getting it wrong? Preposterous notion, right? And so I thought also – until reading this story recently.

The story is by now so well known that it’s featured on Wikipedia. A Chinese woman called Ma Cheng has a given name which uses an unusual character, which is visually composed of three repetitions of the character for “horse”. This character was recorded in a 1710 AD character dictionary as a variant form of a character meaning “gallop”. This variant form has fallen out of use over the last 300 years, and today is only found in comprehensive character dictionaries, with the 1710 publication being the most recent source. For a rough analogy, imagine having a þ in your name.

As might be expected, having an obsolete character in her name has caused Ms Ma some difficulty over the years. For one thing, modern type sets and computer character sets rarely feature the character. In earlier years, authorities would write-in the character “”cheng”” by hand on documents such as ID cards. However, with the conversion towards full digitisation, it is becoming more and more difficult to solve the problem.

A quirky story so far, but not too far out of the ordinary. The NY Times report takes a turn torwards the dark alley of dystopia, however, when it turns towards what it claimed was an 8,000 list of permissible characters. The Chinese government, it said, citing a Chinese newspaper report, had been developing this list in recent years, not just for standardising naming use, but for ordinary usage as well.  A Chinese linguistics official was quoted, via the state mouthpiece Xinhua, as saying that 8,000 characters (compared to the 85,000 in existence, and the roughly 30,000 in ordinary or literary usage) was ‘enough to convey most concepts’. Disturbing whiffs of doublespeak, newspeak, and the Thought Police?

I certainly thought it sounded just a little too shockingly Orwellian. So I went digging a little. The NY Times referenced two other sources for the statements about the 8,000-character “permissible word list”: a Xinhua news piece which it linked to, and a report from “another Chinese newspaper”.

First up, the Xinhua report. Headline? “Official refutes report that China will limit number of characters for new names“. Quite the opposite to the “limiting language to 8,000 characters” claim, it seems.

So how did this all come about? The Xinhua article cites – and refutes – a report by the Guangzhou-based Yangcheng Evening News that claimed that baby names would be limited to an 8,000 character list. It also offers another clue: an 8,000-character list of simplified characters, which a government official says “in combination, could convey almost any concept in any field”. So is it true? Is the Communist government embarking on a campaign to control thought by limiting the tools of thought?

Read more…

Tommy’s travel tip #4: Potsdam

April 8th, 2009 No comments

Cecilienhof, site of the Potsdam ConferenceTip #3: The best way to walk cross-country in snow is to always fall forward: this will naturally cause the front of your foot to sink, placing you in the athletic starting position for the next step.

During our sojourn in Germany, three German words became very familiar to us, owing to constant repetition: hauptbahnhof, “central station”; rathaus, “town hall”; and dom, “cathedral”. Every town had, it seemed, these three basic sights. In Potsdam, a little city some 25 km south-west of Berlin, the city skyline (as much as a row of mutli-storey blocks of flats could be called a “skyline”) was dominated by the brilliant turqouise dome of the local cathedral, topped by a glittering golden angel. The church has recently been renovated, and, like many historical sites that were patched up (or completely re-constructed) after the war, looked remarkably new and smooth, almost botoxed.

The keyword in Potsdam, though, is not hauptbahnhof, rathaus, or dom: it’s sans souci. As in the Sydney suburb. As in French for “no worries”. In 1744, Frederick the Great built his palace, named Sanssouci, in Potsdam. His successors continued the work to create what we see today – a network of palaces and smaller manors, scattered throughout spacious parklands, and a small, pretty town nestled in between.

Windmill in Sanssouci ParkThe most famous of these is Sanssouci itself, a small, elongated building with floor-to-ceiling windows looking out, on one side, towards a semi-circular colonade behind which, in the distance, is a hill with an artificial romantic ruin; on the other side, a grand terrace takes up an area several times the size of the palace itself, descending towards a central road connecting the various palaces in the park.
Being winter, the terraces are not their usual lush green, and the fountains are all boarded up, looking like a collection of modernist, wooden sculptures. The most popular part of the park was the slopes of the terrace, being put to good use by kids armed with toboggans. We noticed, however, that there were a couple of people gathered near a corner of the garden, to the left of the house facing the terrace. From afar, it looked like any other garden bed. Up close, however, it turns out to be a flat, square stone set into the ground, heaped with potatoes. Potatoes? That’s right – they mark the final resting place of Frederick the Great, King of Prussia. Elevated into the state mythology of both the Nazi and Communist regimes, Frederick was an ambiguous character. On the one hand, his military victories consolidated Prussia into the most powerful of the German states, the foundation of the Reich. On the other, he is equally famed for his tumultuous personal life – a wife he was forced to marry, then saw only once a year; hiding himself away at Monumental column in Sans Souci ParkPotsdam with a string of intimate friends, including Voltaire; violent and public rows with said friends; acquiescing to, even encouraging, the rumours of his homosexuality. In death, his fate was almost equally dramatic. Though he desired a burial at night, without pomp, on top of the terrace of his favourite palace, his nephew and successor instead buried him in the garrison church of Potsdam. To save them from bombing, his remains were dug up during World War II and transfered, first to a bunker, and later to a mineshaft. From there, they fell into American hands. They were moved between locations (Potsdam being by then part of East Germany and out of reach for the Americans), including a stint at the dramatic Hohenzollern Castle. It took until German reunification in 1991 for Frederick to be finally returned to Potsdam. After an official lying in state at the Court of Honour of Sanssouci palace, he was laid to rest – at night, without pomp – on his beloved terrace, alongside his favourite greyhound. And the potatoes? Frederick had the foresight to greatly promote the potato – then a new fangled New World import – as a way to feed his people, whether they liked it or not. A popular story tells of Frederick overcoming popular suspicion of the tuber by planting a royal field of potatoes, which he kept under armed guard. Assuming that anything worth guarding is worth stealing, local peasants found ways to sneak in and take the plants for their own gardens – thus beginning the popularity of potatoes in Germany.

It is oddly fitting that this man who once led his armies across central Europe, who is remembered as ‘the Great’, is now marked with a simple stone in a garden bed, right next to his dog, commemorated by a mound of base vegetables. The empire that he laid the foundation to is long gone; Prussia, according to the Treaty of Versailles, is forever dissolved. His greatest achievement, though he himself would scarcely have thought so, turns out to be his enthusiasm for a simple tuber, that “neither tasted nor smelled, that even dogs would not touch”.

The Chinese Pavilion - 18th century European understanding for what is 'Chinese'The park and the palaces have been well maintained. Walking through the monumental tree-lined avenues and past the backs of the grand terraces of the palaces, with only a few other visitors braving the cold and snow, it felt not so much like touring a historical site, as wandering around a home temporarily vacated by the residents – perhaps, judging from the scaffolding erected in some parts – for renovation during the winter. At that moment, I half expected to see a carriage trumdle past, carrying the Kaiser and his family.
However, the past quickly blends into the present. Potsdam is not just the repository of Prussian grandeur – its other claim to fame is through the Potsdam Declaration, the product of a conference between the heads of the Allied powers near the end of World War II. The declaration was to have a profound – perhaps everlasting – effect on the German nation.

The New Palace, the last great Prussian Baroque palaceTo get there, we had to take a bus – then a tram – then a bus – diagonally across Potsdam. Owing to our totally awesome navigational skills and the lack of a detailed map, we managed to get lost right in the town centre. With sunlight rapidly fading, and the thought of giving up on my mind, I asked Brian,  ‘If you were Churchill, where would you have the conference? Would you pick the best palace in town?’ ‘Well … I’m not Churchill, but I have just spent most of a year in Britain… and I reckon I know how Brits think,’ he said after a moment’s thought, ‘I would pick the smallest, most decrepit place I could find, because I wouldn’t want Stalin to think, like, “this is awesome, I want this country”.’

As it turns out, he did know how Brits think – Cecilienhoff, located in Neue Garten on the other side of the town, was a charming little hunting lodge and a huge contrast to the Baroque grandeur of Sans Souci. Its gardens, as well, were human-sized, more pleasant dell than monumental cascading terraces. A small path wound from the front gate to the lodge, then through the woods of the garden. Smoke drifted from the chimneys dotting the pitched roofline. The lodge itself is now a hotel, though visitors are encouraged to stroll around the court yard, at the centre of which is a garden bed arranged with a star pattern to commemorate that meeting 60 years ago.

It was at this fateful meeting that Churchill, Stalin and Truman decided the post-war fate of Germany: it would be divided into zones occupied by each of the Allies; its borders would be contracted; its war potential, as far as possible, would be destroyed. What was intended as a temporary division soon became the focal point of the global Cold War, with the Iron Curtain manifested nowhere more clearly than in Berlin, just an hour away from where the leaders sat those two weeks in the summer of 1945. The same conference also had great significance for hundreds of millions of people on the other side of the world: the Potsdam Declaration, released officially by the  United States and China, gave a final ultimatum to Japan to surrender or face the threat of the powerful new weapon the United States had recently and successfully tested.

The rest, as they say, is history.

The sun had set by the time we wandered out of Cecilienhof onto the pleasant little street lined with suburban cottages. I felt a little tired. This, I thought, might be what they call the weight of history. Or it may just have been a day spent walking in the snow.

Until next time,

Tommy

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