Thursday, February 15, 2007

A Word Is Born: 去功能化

My ears perked up when Secretary Rice used the awkward expression “disablement” to describe the initial stage of the adventure in non-proliferation that North Korea and the U.S. are embarking upon.

As in:

IV. During the period of the Initial Actions phase and the next phase, which includes provision by the DPRK of a complete declaration of all nuclear programs and disablement of all existing nuclear facilities, including graphite-moderated reactors and reprocessing plant, economic, energy and humanitarian assistance up to the equivalent of 1 million tons of heavy fuel oil (HFO), including the initial shipment equivalent to 50,000 tons of HFO, will be provided to the DPRK.

I couldn’t think of how this would be rendered in Chinese, so I took a look at the Chinese text of the agreement that announced the “deal”, actually the “Declaration” concerning the deal that the various parties would try to achieve.

In the Chinese text, “disablement” is rendered as “去功能化 “.

As in:


I don’t think it’s really a Chinese word. I didn’t find it in my dictionaries. Google the phrase and you get about 600 hits, virtually all of them embedded in news stories covering the February 13 announcement.

It crops up a few times in other contexts.

One use is on an academic media site, talking in a po-mo sort of way about how trendy products are “stripped of their functional attributes” when the majority of the their value to the consumer can be ascribed to the image of with-it ness they bring.

On another site, the meaning is actually the subject of a query by a Chinese poster. 去功能化What’s that mean? the poster asks. The blog writer responds, I guess...maybe it’s like when you enter a code on a DVD player so it can’t show adult movies.

However, paydirt is hit with a Chinese-language report by Zhou Ning of China’s Global Times newspaper.

Expounding on the cultural differences he observed covering the 2004 Six Party talks, Zhou talks about how Asians prefer to reach agreement on an inclusive general principle, then hammer out the details, but the Westerners prefer to lay out every issue, argue and resolve each one individually before an overall agreement can be reached.

He writes (my translation):

For example, every time the United States people offer a proposal, they make it extremely detailed and concrete: they demand cessation 停止, destruction销毁, dismantling拆除, removal搬迁, disablement去功能化, they don’t let go of any plans计划, facilities设施, materials材料, or personnel人员. They not only care about what there is, there’s also the things they suspect might be, they are in mortal fear that if they aren’t careful somebody will find a loophole. They believe they have overlooked nothing, but they don’t know how to go about it, and all they can do is increase the suspicious worry and unease of the other party, to the point that even simple questions are made complicated.


Aha! So “去功能化” appears to be an American word inserted into the negotiations.

The U.S. State Department has a history of introducing obfuscatory verbiage into negotiations with the Chinese. Robert Zoellick claimed, rather improbably, that he had tied the Chinese translators in knots for months by introducing the word “mercantilism” (it’s 重商主义,Robert) into his trade negotiations with Beijing.

In Chinese one can say nice straightforward things like cease, destroy, dismantle, remove.

There’s also “eliminate all nuclear capability” ( 消除一切核功能 ), which would seem to fit our stated objective of denuclearization.

To be sure, there isn’t a direct Chinese synonym for “disable” used in this kind of situation. The closest I could think of was “render non-operational” ( 使。。。不能运转).

For one thing, this meaning of “disable” would mean “make it so it can’t work.” But this certainly isn’t what the North Koreans intend to do to their precious nuclear facilities in the initial stage. Obviously, the permanent, irrevocable, and verified disabling of their nuclear facilities a.k.a. elimination of North Korea’s nuclear capability is going to happen, if ever, a lot farther down the road.

暂时停转 (temporary cessation of operation) seems to be what’s really happening, but maybe that’s too close for comfort to the “time out” Iran is asking for

Instead, we get...something else: 去功能化

Literally, I would translate this neologism as: “a transformation involving a divergence from functionality.” Loosely, “defunctionalize” as in “removing functionality from the facility”, with the implication that it’s not random or destructive. Maybe it’s normal and reversible instead.

If I went techspeak, I would say “degrade” as in “The clock speed on the CPU was reduced in order to degrade performance so that export restrictions would be met.” But that would mean whatever was “degraded” was still functioning, albeit at a lower level—definitely not the impression we want to give.

Obviously, 去功能化 is a term pregnant with ambiguity.

It refers to a process, rather than an outcome, as if “the process of removing the function” of nuclear facilities, was a built-in attribute, like activating the V-Chip in the DVD player to disable its ability to play adult movies.

So, the North Koreans are promising to engage in the defunctionalizing of all their nuclear facilities. At least in Chinese. Makes you wonder what the Russian and Korean and Japanese says.

However, given the indefatigable nitpicking and hairsplitting by the American team that Zhou describes above, there is certainly a U.S. definition of what “disablement” of a nuclear facility entails.

But it doesn’t seem to include what Americans would normally construe "disablement" to mean, i.e. something involving dismantling or destruction.

Maybe the term was created and inserted into the negotiations so the Bush administration could assert that it had achieved more than the dreaded Clintonian “freeze”, while the North Koreans can interpret it to mean that all they need to do is to use reversible measures to put the facilities in a non-operating state without damaging or destroying them in order to receive the energy assistance promised in the declaration.

It would be interesting to find out exactly what去功能化means.


ChinaLawBlog said...

I am guessing there is an English, a Chinese, and a Korean version, right? Do any of the versions say which language controls?

China Hand said...

The U.S. and the Chinese versions don't say anything about a governing language. But the statement isn't a binding agreement, so there are no provisions for ratification or interpretation. Each party, presumably, can spin the text to their own advantage--a consideration that probably made this statement easier to arrive at. As I recall the traditional Chinese approach to legally binding obligations on the Chinese government was along the lines of "This agreement is concluded in English and Chinese, each having equal force". That way, the Chinese would not be at the mercy of some English language term whose linguistic and legal implications they might only imperfectly understand

Asad said...

My gf in Taiwan translated it as "making it not work" she didn't seem surprised at it, so maybe it's a term that is used in traditional Chinese ?

Unknown said...

I am sorry that I don't know Chinese. Clenbuterol

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