IT IS not easy being a government translator in China. At almost all official press conferences and events, a Chinese-English translator would be around, required instantly to bridge the gap between the Chinese officials and the foreign journalists.
Most of the time, they do a fairly decent job. But a recent phrase from Chinese president Hu Jintao had translators, foreign media and even academics, flummoxed.
During a commemorative event to celebrate 30 years of China's reform and opening up policy on Dec 18, Mr Hu took a rare break from official speak and used a colloquial phrase.
His words "bu zhe teng" - or do not "zhe teng" - drew audible gasps and laughter from audience in the Great Hall of the People. "Zhe teng" is a phrase popular among the people in northern China, but rarely, if ever, used by central government officials in a formal setting.
What does it mean in English? Here's the tricky part. It is one of those Chinese phrases that seem almost impossible to be neatly translated into English.
Some foreign English media translated it as "don't flip flop", "don't get sidetracked", "don't sway back and forth" and "no major changes".
Perhaps finding the task too cumbersome, the official Xinhua news agency left the phrase out of its English dispatches altogether.
The wordy "don't do something over and over again, and to little effect" seem to capture it best. Essentially, the phrase "zhe teng" has negative connotations and is usually used to refer to someone who keeps trying new things, but in a messy and disorientated way and with no useful final product to show.
So when Mr Hu said "bu zhe teng", he meant to say that China, and in particular the Chinese Communist Party, should be focused on its current system of governance - socialism with Chinese characteristics - and not waste time searching aimlessly for a new model.
During a press conference on Dec 30, when the phrase was brought up again, a State Council official translator simply gave up and said "bu zhe teng" in Chinese - but with a slight English twang.
I guess it's all just too much for the poor translators.
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