August 9, 2013

Translation: a case study, "feminism" and “女权主义"

In a Chinese high school language class, students are taught the concepts of "内涵" (intension, not to be confused with intention in spite of the same pronunciation) and "外延" (extension, not to be confused with action of extending something), two linguistic terms that seem to be less known among American high schoolers. The intension of a word is the concept or idea it evokes, while the extension of it is its referents or what it actually denotes. Therefore, "Venus" has the same extension as does "Morning Star" or "Evening Star" in the culture in which the latter two terms are used because they refer to the same planet, but the three words themselves all have different intensions or meanings.[note1]

A recent discussion among apparently a group of sociologists on Weibo (microblog mainly in China) questions the translation of the word "feminism" to "女权主义". My response is that this translation has been infused with the translator's own understanding, namely, addition of "权" (rights). This semantic expansion of the word during translation creates an intensional asymmetry between the two words in their respective source and target language. On the other hand, according to Wikipedia, feminism "is a collection of movements and ideologies aimed at defining, establishing, and defending equal political, economic, and social rights for women." The Chinese word "女权主义" properly denotes the same referents, or extension of the word; people using "feminism" in English or "女权主义" in Chinese will not have any problem solely due to the translation of this word in either direction, unless the definition is someday changed on the "rights" part. "Feminism" properly or solely based on its intension means a doctrine about femininity or the female gender, not necessarily related to the rights of the said group of people. If one day in the future it no longer denotes movements and ideologies for women's rights, possibly on the day when equal rights are indeed achieved to most or all parties' satisfaction,[note2] and the word continues to refer to some doctrine related to women, the Chinese counterpart "女权主义" will become a mistranslation, and a more direct, intension-mirroring, translation such as "女性主义" will be appropriate.[note3]

It would be interesting to check how other languages translate the word "feminism". As of this writing, Google Translator offers 72 languages, almost all of which, including some adopting a non-Latin alphabet, use a word similar in spelling and pronunciation to "feminism" in English (or rather, its Latin root), suggesting cognation or loan relation. Apart from those languages, the following are the few languages that make up their own terms (literal meanings of the words are in the parentheses):

Chinese: 女权主义 (women-rights-ism)
Arabic: نظرية المساواة بين الجنسين (gender equality theory, 性别平等理论)
Hindi: स्त्रियों के अधिकारों का समर्थन (support of women's rights, 对妇女权利的支持)
Persian: عقیده بهبرابری زن ومرد (belief in equality of men and women, 男女平等之信仰)
Swahili: haki za wanawake (women's rights, 妇女权利)
Vietnames: chủ nghỉa nư quyền (women-rights-ism, 女权主义)
Urdu: تحریک نسواں (women's movement, 妇女运动)
Gajarati: નારીવાદ (theory of women, 妇女理论)
Kannada: >ಸ್ತ್ರೀ ಸ್ವಾತಂತ್ರ್ಯವಾದ (women freedom argument, 妇女自由论争)
and the weirdest of all:
Marathi: स्त्रीयांना पुरूषांबरोबरीचे समान हक्क मिळावे अशा मतप्रणालीची चळवळ (women purusambarobarice same rights strong commitment towards the tribe movement, 妇女??同等权利、对部落作出坚决承诺的运动, where the second word is machine-translated as "men-analogous" -- What's that?)

[note1] This example is taken from Saul Kriptke's "Identity and Necessity", Identity and Individualism, p.141, ultimately attributed to Willard V. O. Quine.
[note2] See e.g. an August 2013 article on Spiegel, "Frauen als Besserverdiener: Mongolische Männer fordern Gleichberechtigung" (Women as better money earners: Mongolian men demand equality), which suggests that the Soviet Union's influence significantly promoted women's status.
[note3] (Update March 2018) I recently posted a message to Weibo. One user's comment makes good sense: "I tend to use “女性主义” in theoretical studies and “女权主义” in political activities, and I believe the two are at best interchangeable as synonyms, and think that “女权主义” is a very good, creative, Chinese translaton." According to Google Ngram, "女权主义" had been more popular than "女性主义" until about 1996. Since then, the usage of the latter kept increasing until 2005 when it became steady. But the usage of "女权主义" almost stopped growing after 1996. Also note that Wikipedia has the 女性主义 page, and a search for "女权主义" is redirected to that page.

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