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Translating “Forgiveness”


Todd Hanson, Mennonite Church Canada Witness worker in Nanchong, China, turns to his students for some expert advice on forgiveness.

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May 3, 2005
-by Todd Hanson

Nanchong, China — When Marco Polo returned to Europe after his Asian excursions, he regaled listeners with tales of his encounter with a unicorn. His unicorn did have a horn on its head, but that’s where the similarity ended. The unicorn he described had a black horn, a buffalo’s pelt, elephant’s hooves, a wild boar’s head, and a spiky tongue. It was, in fact, a rhinoceros.

Polo wasn’t lying – he was trying to describe something new and unusual in terms of the known and the familiar. He thought he knew what he was talking about, but he didn’t – an affliction that often strikes those who journey to other cultures.

I’ve had similar “unicorn” experiences during my time in China, and these experiences often take place in my classroom. One of them planted the seed that grew into my thesis. When China Educational Exchange (CEE) teachers were piloting a curriculum developed by a former CEE teacher, we were all surprised at our students’ negative reactions to what we considered an inspiring story of forgiveness.

Investigating further, I discovered a forgiveness inventory designed in the USA to measure a person’s opinions, feelings, and actions toward an offender. Available in several languages, the inventory revealed that Chinese are less forgiving than Westerners. I began to wonder if it was fair to evaluate forgiveness in China with an inventory developed in the West, by and for Westerners.

The challenge lies in how one translates the word “forgiveness” into Mandarin. English-Chinese dictionaries offer many suggestions, so I asked my senior English students for help. During our work I learned that my students translated “forgiveness” most often as “tolerance” – two words with very different meanings in English. After asking my students to respond to 22 of the forgiveness inventory questions that were most closely linked to forgiveness or tolerance, a slim majority identified only four of the questions as being indicative of forgiveness.

I learned that the developers of the inventory had assumed two things: that one has the right to resent offenders, and that suffering an offence absolves the victim from a responsibility to treat the offender with compassion, generosity, and love.

While the majority of students agreed with the first assumption, the majority disagreed with the second. When a Westerner’s actions are at odds with his or her thoughts and feelings, it smacks of hypocrisy. In Chinese culture, harmony requires that people do not always put their thoughts and feelings into action.

According to a Chinese proverb, “Two-thirds of what a person sees exists behind that person’s eyes”. In this case, perhaps more than four-fifths of the inventory items indicative of forgiveness in China exist only in Western minds. The way forgiveness is measured by this inventory does not translate well into Mandarin either linguistically, philosophically, practically, or theoretically.

What can we learn from this study as we seek to model the Jesus way in other cultures? Like Polo, who must have been greatly disappointed that his Asian “unicorn” didn’t live up to his expectations, Christians can expect that theological concepts and teaching may be interpreted with an equal diversity in expectations. May we always seek to understand before trying to be understood.