The Politics of Translation and Accountability: A Hong Kong Story
Lau Kin-chi, Hui Po-keung, Chan Shun-hing
“Why in a rush?”
This crisp exchange may not be alarming to an innocent ear. Yet, in the real-life situation where this occurred, in a department board meeting in a university in Hong Kong, as the retort came from the chairperson in response to a board-member’s query as to the rationale of rushing an election that had not been announced as an agenda item, the exchange may well crystallize the authority often resorted to in the face of a challenge to the legitimacy of the exercise of its power. The crude manner in which power is exercised in the assertion of authority within a tertiary institution that professes commitment to liberal-arts education is revealing of the conditions in the institutional setting of universities in Hong Kong. The situation is all the more telling when the department in question is a translation department. The situation foregrounds the question ofaccountability to others and to oneself, which is the primary concern of translation. It thus highlights the question of the politics of translation.
In dispute was the grading of final-year translation projects in a first degree programme in translation.The chairperson rushed the election of an assessment panel that would have the final say over all project grades, that is, a panel authorized to overrule grades given by individual supervisors. In this way, the chairperson as well as the majority of the teaching staff in the department argued, “quality” could be assured and “fairness” in the assessment of students’ability could be guaranteed. However, setting up such a system of second assessment in such a way was not designed to serve the democratic purpose of answering student demands for an explication and reconsideration of the first assessment, but rather as a selective check on supervisors considered too “generous” in offering “undeserving” grades to students.1
This uninspiring episode of the assertion of authority might have been experienced by those involved as sailing in a stormy sea; but for those outside the storm, it is a rerun, though with a different cast and performed differently, of an old script of the colonial project: the master, a legislator as well as a judge, undertakes to guard a “tradition” by determining what counts as deviations, how deviations are to be punished, and how to ensure that following generations are like him.
Certainly, the rerun is also a re-enacting, a modulation intime. The episode is a modernized version with the cherished quality of tradition taken to be quantitatively representable in an objective assessment. It seems never to have crossed the minds of these “modern old guards” that a translation programme can be one that tries to make sense of itself, that is, to engage itself with a study of translation rather than consumed by the desire to preserve itself and guard its authority. They can only see the task of a translation programme as providing training for students to become professional translators. In fact, it is a peculiar feature of Hong Kong’s tertiary institutions that many in them seem to share a similar cast of mind. Among the eight universities in Hong Kong, seven have translation programmes for undergraduate students, programmes that, as stated in their handbooks, aim to train secondary school graduates into professional translators within three years.2
The confinement, in the conception of a university programme held by many tertiary educators, within horizons that cannot see further than aiming to produce professionals betrays their understanding with respect to the question of education in general and university education in particular, and, in this case, their specific understanding of translation and the factors immediately related to translation. The insistence on “quality” (i.e., quantity) control and second assessment that deters teachers from relating to students as persons, whose entire learning process (rather than the product of the processalone) should be the primary concern, reveals not only the intellectual poverty of the “modern old guards” but also their inability to hold themselves accountable to others and to themselves by way of “the trace of the other in the self.”3 The state of being unaccountable reflects a state of the closure of mind, of a reluctance to risk making oneself accountable and transforming oneself.
Many in tertiary institutions do not need to be told stories of how power is abused. It is not the interest of this paper to elaborate events in particular institutions in Hong Kong, something which would require detailed accounts to do justice to the different parties involved.4 Yet, epistemologically, it is important to understand not that such manoeuvrings are the play of the politics of power, but the conditions that make possible such unaccountability in a tertiary institution.
We here offer some details surrounding this particular dispute, and try to make sense of the underlying differences in order to broach the issues of the effects of education in general in Hong Kong, as seen in these “modern old guards” with respect to questions of translation and translation teaching. In this context, the discussion of the politics of translation is not merely a recognition of forces beyond the confines of the narrowly defined field of translation operating in the knowledge/power network, but also an intervention into the current state of affairs.
Assessment and Standardization
The department’s guidelines for students doing translation projects summarize some fundamental beliefs of the “modern old guards” regarding why students should adhere to standardized language. It reads:
You may choose to deviate from the dominant norms in exceptional circumstances. In that case it will be to [in]5 your interest to explain these circumstances and justify your strategies in a preface, and even to produce an alternative version to demonstrate that your choice of strategies is not a result of, say, a poor command of Standard Modern Chinese or an inability to comprehend the source text.
An important aim of the course is to train you as professional translators. You should therefore try your best to produce a work that is publishable in the real world. This means that you must be realistic in making decisions with regard to the goals of translation, the possible venue of publication, and the identity [characteristics] of your target readers... that it is advisable for you to conform with the linguistic, literary and translational norms dominant in professional and academic circles, and that, in most cases, Standard Modern Chinese and a high degree of fidelity to the source text are expected.
The guidelines refer to “dominant norms,” “Standard Modern Chinese,” “conform[ing] with the linguistic, literary and translational norms dominant in professional and academic circles,” and “a high degree of fidelity to the source text,” in such a manner that the authority of these norms or the meaning of these terms appears to be beyond doubt. It amounts to sayingthat the norms are there, so students should make an effort to conform. There is no need to explain what these norms are, how such norms have come about, how they have come to be accepted or contested, and, finally, whether “conforming” is justifiable or problematic in specific cases.
The reference to “linguistic, literary and translational norms dominant in professional and academic circles” makes it appear as if it is already widely accepted what the norms are, hence they need only be mentioned and no elaboration is necessary. Scrutinizing this closely, one cannot but be amazed to find nothing other than abstract objectivism (in Volosinov’s words) in this sweeping reference to “norms”; and this kind of irresponsible instruction given to students as “guidelines” is not unfamiliar in statements made by academics taking on the pretence of learnedness and the air of authority and certainty.
First of all, there are immense differences between the ways that professional and academic circles operate. The latter, commonly referred to as the ivory tower, can be insulated from what happens in the “real world.” The teacher of an interpreting course may never have been a full-time practising interpreter and still teach (or claim to teach) students “professional” simultaneous interpreting. A course on legal translation may stand on its own without the students ever being taught any concept of law. A course on the “professional” translation of texts on contemporary China may still be drilling students on translating context-free sentences. Yet the claims of academic “professionalism” do not come under interrogation, and the institutional practice of having examination papers approved by an external examiner already serves the purpose of validation.
What can “linguistic, literary and translational norms dominant in academic circles” possibly mean? Linguistic norms dominant in academic circles? Literary norms dominant in academic circles? Translational norms dominant in academic circles? In real-life terms, it boils down to nothing other than what is presented or represented by individual teachers. Put bluntly, the statement instructs students to conform to the positions, tastes and methodology of their individual teachers (or the second assessors), since there is no way students can figure out what these abstract “dominant norms” might be, and because grading by their teachers (or the second assessors) is often the only criterion whereby students come to know, and often only subsequently, if they have “conformed” to the “dominant norms in academic circles.”
Furthermore, what can “linguistic, literary and translational norms dominant in professional circles” possibly mean? The diversity of so-called professional circles is conveniently swept under the carpet in this formulation. Translation covers such a wide range of “professional” areas that, unless one is specific about the field, purpose, target audience, and particular context of a particular translation, there is no prescription one can give about what sort of “dominant norms” to conform to. Translating a fax-machine manual, a legal deed, a TV advertisement, or the subtitles of a movie, are tasks which differ immensely. The assumption that “in most cases, Standard Modern Chinese and a high degree of fidelity to the source text are expected” can indeed be very wrong in “professional” translation in Hong Kong. One translation graduate with a first-class honours degree who worked for Cable TV was admonished for not being “colloquial” enough in her translations of news and movie subtitling, and her supervisor complained about the remoteness of academic training from the real world. The professions related to translation and interpreting which graduates take up include newspaper editors, newspaper translators, reporters, and police and court interpreters. In most cases in these jobs, “mixed Chinese” (with a lot of Westernized Chinese and colloquial Cantonese) rather than “pure Standard Modern Chinese” is required. In the case of police and court interpreting, slang and foul language is persistently present in the everyday-life speech of witnesses and defendants. Very often, the interpreter chooses not to follow “a high degree of fidelity to the source text,” and skips the foul language while interpreting. One graduate working as court interpreter came back with a story of how she was compelled to interpret a particular foul word that the defendant claimed had triggered off a fight. It would indeed be intriguing to find the “Standard Modern Chinese,” or, in this particular case, the “Standard Modern English” equivalent for the curse word that the judge needed to know in order to determine if the defendant could justify his act of rage.6
In matters where the “modern old guards” seem to be making an effort to make themselves relevant to the business world, an other which they recognizeas being worthy of their attention, their claims of practicality and professionalism are nevertheless nothing more than wishful thinking at best and at worst, deceptive devices to mislead students into submitting to their unfounded authority. With regard to those things which they consider to be within their own sphere, that is, the translation department and the translation programme, they certainly can do more than wish, provided as they are with an environment in which to act out their wishful thinking.
It is no surprise that the following episode took place, and in fact was what induced the issuing of the guidelines on translation projects. The department had a tradition of second assessment of selected translation projects, but before the rushed election in question, the practice was to allow negotiation between the student’s supervising teacher and the second assessor, though even here the arbitrariness was also blatant. In this example, a supervisor gave a B+ to an English-to-Chinese translation project. The second assessor graded it D-, a barely passing grade. When challenged by the supervisor, the second assessor explained that the student in question had used Cantonese, not standard Putonghua, for a few terms such as “grandmother,” “tomato” and “knee”. The supervisor argued against judging a translation simply on its use of so-called “non-standard” vocabulary, contending that “standard” English was not used in the source text, Joyce Carol Oates’s Christmas Night, a text narrated from the viewpoint of a small kid, with broken sentences and the so-called vulgar language of the lower classes. The supervisor further argued that the student had managed very well in capturing the rhetoricity of the source text, and that the choice of diction was based on the student’s intimacy with the words. The final, negotiated grade was C, which is another instance of the arbitrariness of the “objective” grading procedure.
After this episode, the Department drew up the guidelines quoted earlier in this paper. Power operates, as indicated in the guidelines, in such a way that only certain groups (in this case students who have a potential of deviating from the dominant norms or standard usage) are required to explain their choices, whereas groups in dominant positions (those who choose to conform to so-called Standard Modern Chinese) can simply ride the waves.7
The episode of downgrading from B+ to D- illuminates the violence in the imposition of an abstract standard, a constant, as an instrument of control on students and teachers alike, lest any deviation upset the status quo. Dennis Carlson’s words, as quoted by Marcia Moraes, are applicable here:
Since their first years in school, students are told emphatically that theyhave to write correctly; they have to read correctly; and they have to talk correctly. One question emerges from this context that seems particularly relevant: What does it mean to know and to be able to communicate “correctly” in a language? The meaning of correctly in schools has represented and continues to serve as a form of domination in which the standards of language are inextricably linked to the power of dominant groups... From this hegemonic process, especially in bilingual education, students are situated in a process of standardized memorization of vocabulary and grammatical correctness that does not draw upon their cultural background, their lived experiences, and their ethno-linguistic diversity. It follows, therefore, that language becomes reduced to a set of cognitive skills to be acquired in the absence of the students’ social identity that delineates their ethnicity, their gender, and their class.8
The refusal to recognize that languages are multiple, that there are different languages for different social groups and classes, for specific communities, for different generations, and different languages for different occasions,9 is a denial of the lived experiences of specific groups or persons. In the “from B+ to D-” episode, the D- was metedout through a deliberate dismissal of the concrete experience of the student as reader and translator, as well as the concrete experience of the narrator in the fiction, as staged by the translator in her translation. The concrete and the particular, charged with dynamic differences, constitute a threat to the “purity” of the standard and therefore must be repressed.
Translation Programmes in Hong Kong
The dispute over assessment and standardization between, for the sake of convenience, the majority and the minority in the department was constituted by and constitutive of differences with regard to what translation is, and how a first-degree programme in translation should operate. At the conceptual stage and in the initial years of the operation of this translation programme which was established in 1991, when most majority and minority members had not yet been recruited to the department, the translation programme placed its emphasis on educating students with an understanding of cross-cultural issues and competence in bilingual skills, who will be capable, on graduation, to manage on-the-job training as translators/interpreters in specific fields, or take up “generalist” jobs as journalists, teachers or administrative executives. Apart from language courses in English and Chinese, and courses on practices in code-switching, a substantial part of the programme were courses on literary, cultural, social and translation studies, including comparative literature, international relations, contemporary China and Hong Kong studies, and translation theories.
Over the years, new staff members were recruited, and differences over what the programme should encompass and how courses should be delivered surfaced and intensified, up to the point when the numeric majority sought to overhaul the existing programme. Taking advantage of the switch to a credit-based system, the majority introduced substantial changes. Whereas in the old system, the cultural and social-studies components accounted for 24 out of the minimum 66(36%) required credits, in the new programme, they account for only 6 out of 54 (11%) required credits. Almost 90% of the required credits now go to courses defined as practical translation, interpreting, and linguistics courses.The changes were imposed through crude violence. With only a show of hands, existing courses were deleted, amidst protests by the minority over the violation of academic autonomy and the exercise of majority coercion.
The majority for its part defended the change by insisting that what defines a translation programme is precisely those so-called translation, interpreting and linguistics courses. Furthermore, they believe that these courses, being “practical”, can help develop students’ language proficiency, regarded as the most important factor in turning students into “professional translators.” Here are some extracts that present the majority’s views:
If students do not get enough translation practice, the programme would lack credibility. [Three] clearly identifiable areas of student concern could be identified from [a] survey:
1. there was not enough translation practice in the current programme;
2. there was not enough interpreting;
3. there was not enough practice in speaking English.
This is a question of “quality control” of graduates. Interpreting acts to strengthen one’s translation skills. Students often don’t have the time to devote sufficient time to these courses because of pressures from other courses.
Interpreting helped students improve their language skills... Translation Theory... did not have much practical use for students, so had been made a free elective.10
Thus, while making more interpreting courses compulsory, courses like “Translation Theory” or the “History of Translation” are made optional. Butin this apparently practical turn, instead of giving due attention to the inter-cultural and interdisciplinary nature of the practice of translation, the increased vocational orientation paradoxically results in what practical translation intends to avoid: consigning oneself to the impractical and the irrelevant.
Let us for a moment take a “pragmatic” approach by looking at the correlation between training and employment, and see how deceptive the claims of “practical” vocational training may be. Accordingto the Graduate Employment Survey conducted by this university, the figures for its 1993, 1995 and 1997 translation programme graduates being employed as translators or interpreters were, respectively, 56%, 22% and 4%, whereas those employed as personnel/administrative/management executives were, respectively, 0%, 20% and 25% (the 1993 graduates were diploma programme graduates). The employment survey of translation graduates of other universities shows similar trends. A polytechnic-school-turned-university had over half its diploma graduates for both 1993 and 1994 employed as translators and interpreters; yet in 1995, when it graduated both diploma and degree programme students, less than one-third took up jobs as translators and interpreters. For another university which graduated its first two batches of about 50 translation degree holders in 1994 and 1995, less than 5% of the graduates worked in translation and interpreting.
The figures show that a smaller and smaller percentage of graduates of translation programmes (especially degree programmes) are actually employed in the field of specialized study that they are trained for. The figures may be interpreted in different ways. Contextualized in the specific sociopolitical situation of Hong Kong of the early nineties, the introduction of a large number of degree programmes was part of a sudden rapid expansion of tertiary education in the run-up to the 1997 transfer of sovereignty. For the seven government-funded tertiary institutions, their first-year intake of first-degree students increased from a total of 7,417 in 1989-90, to 12,090 in 1992-93, to 15,070 in 1995-96. This means that within six years, the intake more than doubled. The percentage of the relevant age group (ages 17 to 20) provided with first-year, first-degree places increased from 8.8% in 1989-90, to 15% in 1992-93, to 17.8% in 1995-96. Research postgraduates also increased from 729 in 1989-90, to 1,943 in 1992-93, and to 2,953 in 1995-96, a four-fold increase.11 Whether this is read as the conspiracy of the colonial government to produce more people educated in the British colonial heritage, or as a response to an expanding demand for an educated labour force in the age of globalization, the expansion may be seen as offering more opportunities for further study for high-school graduates. Yet this also poses a problem: though the degree programmes may profess to train specialists or professionals in specific fields, a large number of graduates are not employed in their own or even in related fields, and this trend seems to be aggravating.
Thus, in this particular social context, even for pragmatic reasons, a translation programme that focuses primarily on technical skills training is neither sound nor relevant. But there are more important, structural reasons that a translation programme, if it is to be a sensible one, cannot be conceived reductively and abstractly in terms of the learning of technical skills, and this question will be dealt with later on in this paper.
Before going into that, itmust be mentioned that such simplistic and complacent assertion about translation and the teaching of translation may well be one of the effects of education in general in Hong Kong on both teachers and students. The massive increase in university enrolments means that the education system can no longer avoid confronting the effects of its own working by rejecting as failures those who are made in it and in fact reflect the very truth of the system itself. That is, the bilingual education system of Hong Kong has consistently failed to deliver what it promises while it has all along been very successful in preventing the majority of students from benefiting from it. This means that universities have now to admit a great number of students who are still far from having a reasonable command of reading and writing skills in both languages, English and Chinese.
Obviously, it would be almost impossible to turn a student with a poor command of English into a professional fluent in spoken and written English in three years, regardless of what curriculum is offered, not to mention enabling students to learn through researching, posing questions that direct a research, and questioning the questions they tend to pose, i.e., to learn to learn as what university educationshould consist of. It is indeed unimaginable that a degree programme in translation does not bother about theoretical as well as historical questions of translation, despite the fact that translation practice in Hong Kong was obviously the “child of [British] imperialism.”12 The presumptuous pragmatism and impatient instrumentalism may be another of the “Hong Kong characteristics.” The design and delivery of translation programmes, the emphasis in examination on assessing students against an abstract measure to assure quality control, and the naive understanding of both translation and language all raise important questions concerning the state of Hong Kong’s education in general, the conception of education and university, the question of the study of translation and language, and, last but not least, the question of the intellectuals.
Education in Hong Kong
The common practice of stressing professional training within Hong Kong’s tertiary institutions may give one the impression that they are yielding to pressure from business and professional circles. However, the complicity between the commercial world and academia is more complicated than it appears. In fact, agreement between the two is very much confined within the verbal horizon, as the recent controversy over the urge to revamp Hong Kong’s education system as a whole reveals.
In September 1999, the Education Commission set up by the government to study how to reform Hong Kong’s education system published a report. Addressing the question of the success of the education system in serving the business sector, Professor Cheng Kai-ming, a commission member and Hong Kong University’s pro-vice-chancellor, had the following comments:13
We have the money, our infrastructure is good and our students are not bad.Then how come when they graduate, they can’t compete and do their jobs competently?… Surely the elite the system has tried to produce has not made the grade... The knowledge and skills this elite possesses may be relevant this year but outdated the next... Many of our most adept students and professionals pick up their skills on their own in spite of, not because of, their education.
As for the reason the education system has fallen into such a sordid state, the Commission confirms the conclusion reached long ago by many, that is, that the system has itself to blame in contributing to its own demise. Simply put, the legacy of Hong Kong’s education system is that of a colonial education which depended on an examination-based system for the production of the ruling elite of the colonial government. Thus Cheng Kai-ming said in the reform proposal:
The examination is the heart and soul of the current system. Without examinations, teachers won’t know what to teach, students what to study and school principals how to be principals.
To cope with the demands of examinations, both teachers and students are forced to adopt rote-based learning, as the sole aim of studying becomes practically geared to passing examinations. Cheng Kai-ming described succinctly the sordidstate of learning in these words:
The present system confines studies to a structured examination syllabus. That which is not in the syllabus is not taught, and that which is not taught is not studied.
In fact, this legacy developed over a time when intellectual learning and critical thought were negative factors in seeking success even for the elite. It may be of interest to quote the Burney Report of 1935, a time when university education was limited to a very small, elite minority:
The schools are alsocriticized for being too examination oriented, for giving students insufficient knowledge of Chinese, and for providing insufficient ability in English so that students need special help when they enter Hong Kong University and are unable to cope with the demands of spoken English in the business world....14
Alarms about the education system have been sounded time and again over the years, with similar observations about the detrimental effects of an examination-based system. The expansion of tertiary education in the early nineties was championed as a breakthrough in Hong Kong’s education. However, the results appear to be far from satisfactory. In view of the pressure coming from drastic and rapid change in the world, with life more and more extensively and intensively organized on the basis of fast-growing knowledges and technologies, the Education Commission, in the last few months of the twentieth century, put forward the slogan “Learning for Life” as the aim of the educational reform, despite the fact that this slogan has been promulgated by the UNESCO for many years.
Another high-level figure also testified to the outdatedness of the legacy in showing his support of the proposal. Professor Chung Yue-ping, dean of the education faculty at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, said tellingly, “Our employers are no longer looking for cheap labourers who are obedient. They expect staff to have creativity, team-working ability and a tolerance of different ideas.”15 In a similar vein, a survey of the views of 194 employers showed that the qualities in the younger generation where employers would most like to see an improvement are a sense of responsibility (84.5%), interpersonal communication skills (42.8%), mastery over work-related skills (40.7%), and ability for independent thinking (36.1%). Language competence (30.9%) and writing ability (19.6%) ranked only fifth and seventh.16
The above criticisms of Hong Kong’s education come from people with influence on policies and decisions that affect Hong Kong society differentially. These are people that the“modern old guards” would like to identify with, for they preside from their positions of authority over the maintenance of standards and norms without which “quality control” would become impossible. The message from the educational reform proposal is clear: the tradition the “modern old guards” seek to guard and thereby (wittingly or unwittingly) reproduce through the assertion of their authority is the tradition of an elitist, examination-based system that demands rote-based learning from students, and, further, that is already an obsolete system judging from its failure to produce professionals meant for various sectors of society.
Standard Languages in Hong Kong
In promoting the reproduction of a system in which they reside among the small number of “successes,” as against the majority of students failed by the system, the “modern old guards” stress the importance of examination and assessment methods that judge a student by the finished product rather than attending to the learning process. In this, the standardized use of language is a key factor. The argument for acquiring language proficiency through the mastering of the standard language in fact is a translation of the training for success in examinations into the training to be a professional translator, with learning a standard language taking the place of learning model answers. As a model answer is supposed to stand on its own, a standard language is also supposed to be context-free. This partly explains how it is possible for the “modern old guards” to think that language proficiency can be learned by way of model examples, that is, as a universal capability.However, in maintaining such a position of authority, they not only slide into the indefensible position of abstract objectivism through the disavowal of their own experience of language, they also seem to be oblivious of the growing recognition of the untenability of such a stance within the educational sector.
In Hong Kong, after the change of sovereignty in 1997, the educational policy of “two languages and three tongues” (the former being English and Chinese and the latter English, Putonghua and Cantonese) was implemented through an educational reform instigated in 1998-99 in which mother-tongue teaching was generally promoted in secondary schools. In a go, amidst protests from teachers and parents, over 300 schools (a fivefold increase from the previous 70 or so schools) adopted Chinese as the medium of instruction. The 114 schools granted the permission to continue with English as the medium of instruction came to be regarded as providing a better quality education. After a year, support from school principals for the government Chinese language policy reportedly dropped from 85% to 65%.17
The official recognition of Cantonese as a “tongue” to be used as the medium of instruction is in reality not so much a drastic turn. Before the reform, although English was officially the medium of instruction, most classes were actually conducted in Cantonese. A survey showed that even in the University of Hong Kong, which is supposed to use English as the medium of instruction, half of classes in some courses were conducted in Cantonese.18 Thus, the belated educational reform may be read as a formal recognition of the actual pattern of language-use in Hong Kong.19
While some may hasten to claim that a process of de-colonization is rolling along, judging from the implementation and timing of the new education language policy, it may still be too early to determineif this is more a gesture than the beginning of a profound transformation. If one traces the history of Chinese-language education in Hong Kong’s colonial history, one may be astonished to find that the British were not always antagonistic to the idea of Chinese-language education. Alastair Pennycook documents the changes in policies of the colonial government with regard to English and Chinese education in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, and sees the debates and policies within the ruling bloc as responses to the events of this tumultuous period, such as the 1911 revolution in China, the 1917 revolution in Russia, or the 1925-27 massive strike and boycott of British goods in Hong Kong.20For example, faced with the 1925-27 strike, the British stressed careful monitoring of vernacular education along with intervention in the Chinese school curriculum:
In such a system great stress should be laid on the ethics of Confucianism which is, in China, probably the best antidote to the pernicious doctrines of Bolshevism, and is certainly the most powerful conservative course, and the greatest influence for good.... Money spent on the development of the conservative ideas of the Chinese race in the minds of the young will be money well spent, and alsoconstitutes social insurance of the best kind.21
This impulse led to the establishment of the Chinese Department at the University of Hong Kong and a new government-run Chinese secondary school. About half a century later, in 1974, Chinese was made an official language, while English of course remains dominant in the government, economics and the judiciary. Hence, it cannot be simplistically deduced that the introduction of Chinese language is necessarily a major step in de-colonization. It must also be noted that so-called Standard Modern Chinese (based on spoken Putonghua) mostly represents the assertion of national unity and sovereignty, and control from the centre. While Cantonese is recognized as an important medium of instruction, students using Cantonese in written form are penalized (remember the case of the student using Cantonese terms for “grandmother”, “tomato” and “knee” and almost receiving a failing grade with the second assessor).
The crux of the problem thus lies not in which language is recognized, but in the insistence on upholding standard languages and the disavowal and denial of historical contingencies embedded in the standardization and normalization of the languages. bell hooks sees language as a site of struggle and standard English as the “oppressor’s language”22; Pennycook traces “Standard English” as largely a product of nineteenth-century British colonial expansion, specifically the adoption of mass, standard education and language teaching in order to effectively control workers, to reduce the potential for labour unrest, as well as to increase the acceptability of British goods in the colonies. He notes that the written form of Standard English originates from selectively chosen literary canons and that the spoken form derives from the dialect of the southern public school in Britain during the Victorian period. How this “Standard English” developed from the language of a specific group to acquire its “standard” status is by and large a historical contingency which reveals both the inequality of and contention for power among different groups.23
Similarly, Standard Modern Chinese is also based on a specific local dialect (one close to the Beijing dialect) and is likewise a product of historical construction. So Yiu-cheong traces the tortuous paths that vernacular Chinese has taken in the past century and the ways the so-called Standard Modern Chinese normalizes the incorporation of Europeanized syntax and diction and other hybrid elements in the contending discourses of the building of a national identity, the quest for modernization, and the promotion of class struggle and revolution.24His genealogy of the absorption (and disavowal) of Europeanized diction and syntax in the standardization of Modern Chinese offers an interesting glimpse into the larger question of the confrontations (and effects of confrontations) of Chinawith global forces of domination in the past century.
A de-colonization project involves the countering of the subjectivization function of language by scrutinizing how the notion of language has been de-historicized and thus turned ahistorical and objective, and how standard languages remain hegemonic with institutional backing. Take again translation for illustration. Just as in studying for an examination in a subject, that subject is taken to be already unproblematically given, training to become a translator similarly presupposes translation as self-evidently an act of bringing what is said in one language, the source language, unquestioningly taken to be a “standard language,” into another language, the target language which must also be a “standard language” as required by the profession (read here: examination). Deviation from the “standard target language” must be accounted for. The emphasis on “accountability” in translating and safeguarding the “credibility” of the translation programme quoted earlier can now be understood as requirements stipulated within a system now deemed to be obsolete by the professional world. In other words, the wishful thinking, the stipulation of abstract norms and standards premised on a notion of language described by Volosinov as abstract objectivism that “does not correspond to any real moment in the historical process of becoming... [that] exists only with respect to the subjective consciousness of individuals belonging to some particular community governed by norms,”25 can only be possible under the umbrella of an institutional setting which is not accountable in the first place.