At the height of the Cold War, American and Soviet scientists wrote handbooks for each other that attempted to bridge their language gap. Helping to explain some of the era’s more arcane nuclear terminology, these handbooks were a crucial diplomatic tool that helped prevent potentially disastrous misunderstandings.
Such tools are in need of an update since Chinese has become a key language for nuclear diplomacy. Recently, a small group of American and Chinese scientists and engineers collaborated on a compendium of roughly a thousand terms and phrases related to nonproliferation, testing, and more. The latest edition of this “Nuclear Security Glossary” was made freely available online in November, though it remains a work in progress.
The need for such a nuclear glossary — a joint effort of the US Committee on International Security and Arms Control (CISAC) and the Chinese Scientists Group on Arms Control (CSGAC) — arose because accurate translations between English and Chinese can be tricky under the best of circumstances, and in the highly technical context of nuclear terminology, they are of fundamental importance. “Science rests as much on communication as discovery,” says Raymond Jeanloz, a physicist and CISAC member who helped craft the glossary. “A research breakthrough is not considered to have happened until it is widely reported and the results replicated.”
And while this effort has implications for research, its focus is on defense policy. The glossary reflects a tacit recognition that China is no longer a bit player in the nonproliferation world, but a nuclear peer that poses different challenges than did the Soviet Union. “All cultures’ choices of terms come with an enormous amount of baggage,” says Hans Kristensen, director of the Nuclear Information Project at the Federation of American Scientists. “That’s especially the case with the Chinese because the language and culture behind them are so different from ours.”
According to Li Bin, director of the Arms Control Program at Tsinghua University’s Institute of International Studies, one piece of this baggage is America’s continued misunderstanding of the Chinese term for “deterrence.” In Chinese the concept is “wei-she,” which roughly translates to coercion or threat, whereas the English term has a less aggressive connotation.
Misunderstandings, however, can happen on both sides. Chinese arms-control experts speak of “fan wei-she,” the position of resisting coercion by military powers. That meaning is lost on American scientists if the phrase is literally translated as “counter deterrence.”
“In the past several decades,” says Li, “Chinese and American scholars had a lot of debates on meaningless things simply because they had different understandings about the same words.” And the past decade has been the worst for US-China nuclear relations, as contact between the two nuclear communities has been almost nonexistent since US officials accused China of trying to steal state secrets in 1999. So how can a glossary help open a dialogue between two countries if they don’t have much to say to each other?
That is why the process of creating the glossary matters as much as the finished product, says Gregory Kulacki, a senior analyst at the Union of Concerned Scientists. Having a forum for talking through sensitive issues, like the meaning of “limited deterrence,” he says, is worthwhile for building trust. Even if no agreement is reached on a translation, such discussions are helpful in understanding the policies that stem from the term, as it “gets to the whole point of why China has the weapons they have,” says Kulacki.
While the glossary is an important first step for improved relations, Li says more bilingual security experts are ultimately necessary. “I don’t know if some other circles — for example, military scholars, international relations scholars, or journalists — would also take the glossary as their bible,” he says.
That means translation will likely remain a sensitive and sometimes contentious subject in US-China relations, especially in matters of science. Take American nuclear expert Jeffrey Lewis’s 2007 book, The Minimum Means of Reprisal — a title lifted from a Chinese official’s description of his government’s nuclear stance. When the book was translated into Chinese, its title became The Minimum Means of Revenge.
Originally published March 24, 2009