A cross-cultural communication coup – Chinese/English interpretation panels at Arrowtown Chinese Settlement
Guest blog by Susie Geh, community relations ranger, Wakatipu Area Office, Department of Conservation
To celebrate the 150th Anniversary of the discovery of gold in Arrowtown the community arranged festivities and events over Labour Weekend.
Part of the celebrations included live theatre at the DOC-managed Arrowtown Chinese settlement. At its peak the settlement was home to around 20 Chinese miners. Now it houses ruins, restored huts and interpretation panels. The theatre aimed to bring the settlement to life and included Chinese actors, fire crackers and dragon dancers.
As DOC’s contribution to the event we came up with the idea of translating the existing English interpretation panels into Chinese to make it more accessible to Chinese visitors. It sounded wonderfully simple……
To quote from the NTIS New Zealand website:
“’Chinese’ does not refer to one distinct language, but rather a group of languages and dialects….
There are several forms of spoken Chinese… The main ones are Mandarin and Cantonese. Mandarin is spoken widely in Mainland China and parts of South East Asia including Singapore.Cantonese is spoken in China’s Guangdong province and Hong Kong.
Chinese is written with thousands of distinctive characters….. There are two written forms of Chinese – traditional and simplified Chinese….. it is not unusual to find that those who read only traditional Chinese cannot understand simplified Chinese, and vice versa.”
So which language to put it into? The advice we received from a well respected member of the NZ Chinese community was that simplified Chinese would be most widely accessible so we went for this option.
After we had completed the translation some of the wider Chinese community learned of the plans and were very concerned. The original miners spoke Cantonese and it was felt we should go for the traditional language.
Part of the Chinese community’s concern was the miner’s names. The names were recorded in English, e.g. Ah Lum; however Ah Lum isn’t actually a Chinese name. Ah effectively means ‘him/that man’ and Ah Lum is therefore an English-derived nickname. The Chinese community were worried we would translate the names into modern Chinese and in doing so the names would lose all meaning. The compromise we reached was to keep the names in English.
The next challenge we faced was finding a graphic designer who could work in Chinese (DOC’s systems can only work with the Western alphabet), finding someone to help us with an appropriate layout for Chinese text and getting agreement with the Chinese community on the mounting of the signs.
Along the way I learnt a few things:
- This one is obvious but important – any community is made up of individuals who have differing opinions; speak to enough people to get a broad consensus.
- Engage the communities early – if they are onboard from the beginning it makes the process easier.
- Just because stories have been written and agreed to in English it doesn’t mean translating them into another language will work.
- Working in a language you cannot understand is difficult! You are completely reliant on those who assist you.
Resolution was reached because I continued to talk to the Chinese community and had some great supporters who understood what we were trying to achieve.
Some of the people who had been most concerned at the start ended up helping us the most, and went above and beyond to complete the panels on time.
The translated panels were unveiled by Madam Tan of the Chinese Consulate in Christchurch as part of the 150 celebrations and (so far) they seem to be a success……Susie Geh.