Jeffrey LewisMinimum Means of Something

At the end of an article about the National Academies glossary project, Lionel Beehner in SEED Magazine mentions the trouble that beset the translation of my book into Chinese:

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.

The story is true — although my Chinese is lousy, Gregory Kulacki pointed it out to me. (I was honored that the China Academy of Engineering Physics thought the book worth translating.)

The title comes from Marshal Nie Rongzhen, who explained his support for developing ballistic missiles and nuclear weapons in his memoir with the phrase: “有起码的还击手段.”

Beijing Review, which published excerpts of Nie’s memoir, and New World Press, which published an English-language version, made very different decisions about how to translate Nie’s phrase.

Beijing Review, in an article titled “How China Develops Its Nuclear Weapons” (April 29, 1985) , translated the phrase as “at least then, we could effectively counterattack.” New World Press, in an edition called Inside the Red Star: The Memoirs of Marshal Nie Rongzhen (1988, trans. Zhong Renyi), chose “we would have the minimum means of reprisal”.

I preferred the more literal “minimum means of reprisal” because the phrase is sonorous and describes the Chinese posture without using “deterrence” (威慑).

The word for deterrence, in Chinese, which carries a much stronger sense of “terror” than it does in English. Who even notices, in English, that the ter, in deter, is from the Latin terreo, “to frighten”? But I am told you can’t escape the root in Chinese. As a result, Chinese speakers don’t like to use “deterrence” to describe their posture.

This past year, the China Academy of Engineering Physics translated my book into Chinese. When the title — Nie’s phrase — was translated back into Chinese, the translator picked 最起码的报复手段 — with 报复 (“revenge”) replacing 还击 (to “fight back” or “retaliate”).

Again, my Chinese is lousy, but I am told that 报复 has a much more bloodthirsty quality than Nie’s original choice of 还击.

PS: If you are obsessed with translation issues, Adam Thirlwell had a wonderful article in The Believer.


  1. 3.1415 (History)

    Many things have been lost in translation; the most important ones are always intentional. When China leaders say that they want China to be a “great country”, Western experts translate the phrase to “great power”. When the Americans wanted China to be a responsible “stakeholder”, many in China believe that Americans just want China to hold the steak, not to eat it. After all, most experts agree that there are not enough cows to feed all the Chinese when we just have one earth. Someone has to hold the steak for others to eat. Does it matter to reprise or to revenge? After someone nukes you, the only basic instinct left is to revenge. Your Chinese experts at the CAEP want to set it right for you. You might have subconsciously endorsed the inaccurate and vague translation of还击 to “reprisal” for the faintest hope that a bloody revenge might not need to happen, especially when you live in Washington DC. This miscalculation is rejected in the official Chinese translation. If you have to do psychoanalysis on your Chinese translator in Mianyang or Beijing, he is pretty sure that he will be gone in the first attack and wants to make sure that the revenge is assured. As a native speaker, I can assure you that the upgrade of 还击 (counterattack) to 报复 (revenge) is more appropriate. Counterattack can be too easily misinterpreted as counterforce, which opens another can of worms. China likes countervalue, which is revenge in plain English.

  2. Jeffrey Lewis (History)

    You are overlooking the fact that the translator changed Nie’s original wording from 还击 to 报复.

    In any event, as a native English speaker, I can tell you that a “reprisal” is no less guaranteed than “revenge.”

  3. tbaum (History)

    I just want to know what that character is after your name on the cover of the Chinese translation… It’s also interesting that the cover of the original English text is very simple, while the Chinese version has a mushroom cloud in the background— and a globe centered over the Atlantic Ocean!

  4. Iain Johnston (History)

    Jeffrey, I think the Seed Magazine report is incorrect about how to translate your book title back into English. 核报复(he baofu) is commonly used as the term for “nuclear retaliation” when the Chinese talk about nuclear doctrine issues (though I think the more common term used to describe Chinese nuclear campaign operations is 核反击 (nuclear counter-attack/strike). 报复 doesn’t really mean “revenge” in this context. 报仇 (baochou) is closer to meaning “revenge”. So the Chinese translation of your book title is ok, though you are right that it would have been better to use Nie’s own words. As for whether Chinese speakers don’t like to use 威慑 (deterrence) to describe China’s posture, I think this depends. Older generation strategists don’t like the term. There was a debate in the 1980s about whether and how to use the term publicly. Overtime it has become quite common in both open not-so-open PLA writing to use 威慑 (deterrence) to describe the basic missions of the Second Artillery.

  5. Jeffrey Lewis (History)


  6. magoo (History)

    Where can I buy the English version of your book from? Is there any outlet in India?

  7. Alex W. (History)

    “Deterrence” is such a strange word to try and translate the tone of anyway—on the one hand clinical, on the other, horrible. Spencer Weart notes in his Nuclear Fear that the French translated it into “dissuasion,” whereas the Russians translated it into “terrorization“—two sides of the same nuclear coin. Says Weart: “Most thinkers mixed the two approaches, evading refutation in one mode of thought by shifting indiscriminately to the other.”

  8. Carl (History)

    As Jeffery coined the title from Chinese in the first place, and I assume highlighted and analyzed the quote within the book, it’s odd they felt the need to change the word. However, I’ll throw another theory as to why into the ring: culture. I’ve found it quite typical for Chinese people to slightly tweak or change the meanings of words, phrases, and sentences to more closely follow their interpretation (perhaps of your interpretation) of the subject matter. They do this not because they feel your interpretation is inaccurate in anyway, but simply because they believe it will be better understood. I think 3.1415 did an excellent job of explaining the thought process behind this. Please note I am not making a cultural judgment, simply sharing my experiences having lived in the country for a half decade.

  9. J House (History)

    It seems the cover montage isn’t lost in translation.

    On another topic, within days the DPRK will intentionally violate UN res 1718.
    Today, they threatened to restart Yongbyon and violate the 2005 agreement .
    Doesn’t this sort of qualify for an important topic on this arms control blog?
    The DPRK first obtained nuclear weapons under the Clinton admin, then increased their stockpile under Bush (including a test of a warhead and IR ballistic missiles).
    The question is, how far will they go under an Obama administration?
    It starts with a missile test that is a sure violation of 1718.Where will it end?

  10. MarkoB

    So the etymology of the term “deterrence” suggests that nuclear deterrence is a form of nuclear terrorism; notice that in the ever increasing literature on nuclear terrorism no analysis is made about the possible conceptual links between deterrence and terror. Schelling famously defined nuclear deterrence as a form of hostage taking. Conventional military deterrence would not be a form of terrorism because conventional capabilities deter by denial rather than punishment, unless we speak of strategic bombing. During WW2 the strategic bombing of Germany by RAF Bomber Command and the USAAF have been described as being “terror raids.”

    If deterrence is terror then one of the most important means of truly eliminating nuclear terrorism is via the stuff that James Acton writes about here, namely nuclear disarmament as a form of arms control. In the absence of such measures, if deterrence is terror, then policies to prevent nuclear terrorism become, tacitly, policies to ensure that nuclear terror remains a state monopoly.

  11. Josh (History)

    J House:

    You wrote:

    The DPRK first obtained nuclear weapons under the Clinton admin, then increased their stockpile under Bush (including a test of a warhead

    But I’m not sure that’s accurate. The IC claims that the North Koreans had reprocessed enough Pu for 1-2 bombs by 1992, and did not reprocess more until the Bush 43 administration.

    The North Koreans would have us believe that they never reprocessed that much until the Bush 43, post-Agreed Framework years.

    So, either way…

  12. Gregory Kulacki (History)

    I believe the author of the article took his lead from me, so if there is a dispute or error please don’t blame him.

    I do not disagree with Iain’s comment on the frequency of the use of the term 核报复, but there is a difference between 还击 and 报复. They are not equivalent. Since this cannot be argued, how else would you distinguish the connotations of the two terms in an English translation if we start by assigning “reprisal” to the former? I believe 还击 has a more clinical, objective or dispassionate connotation while 报复 is more colloquial and emotional, and so my characterization of the difference is legitimate in this case.

    As for what the translators did, I suspect it reflects little more than their use of the dictionary. Most English-Chinese dictionaries translate the word “reprisal” as 报复. The translators probably did not take the time to go back and get the original Chinese quote from Nie, but simply retranslated Jeffrey’s translation back into Chinese. Having sponsored an ESL training course for the group at CAEP, I suspect this, rather than any deep psychological or cultural reason is the best explanation of what happened here.

    Incidentally, I find the comments of 3.1415 truly horrifying.

  13. Iain Johnston (History)

    Gregory correctly draws a distinction between 还击 (return strike/strike back) and 报复 (retaliate). I like the “clinical” versus “emotional” idea. Bao (报)(as it is used in the compound for revenge or retribution) almost implies something righteous or normatively justifiable. That said, I’d be interested in how much of a distinction Chinese strategists make in daily usage. For example, Sun Xiangli’s essay on Chinese nuclear strategy in World Economics and Politics (no.9 2006) p.29, (孙向丽, “中国核战略性质与特点分析”, 世界经济与政治 9/2006)and Wang Zhongchun and Liu Ping’s article on post-cold war trends in nuclear weapons, also in World Economics and Politics (No.5 2007) p.13 (王仲春 刘 平, “试论冷战后的世界核态势” 世界经济与政治(2007/5) appear to use both terms to describe China’s force missions.

    Incidently, as a first cut, it you search the China Academic Journals database for the frequency of articles (all politics articles from 1980-2009) that use various terms for nuclear second strikes, one finds 431 articles that use the term 核报复 (nuclear retaliation), 373 that use 核反击 (nuclear counterattack) and only 29 that use the term 核还击 (nuclear return strike/strike back). These include articles about the nuclear forces of other countries, not just China’s. As I said earlier, my hunch is that the PLA writing on China’s nuclear forces uses the more “clinical” 核反击.