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Translational Distortions of the Term "Critical Race Theory"

This article was translated into Chinese and published on WeChat through a collaboration with Chinese for Affirmative Action

Chinese is an ancient language family full of rich meaning, where even everyday terminology is more poetic than its English counterpart. For example, in Standard Mandarin—which is only one Chinese dialect of many—a common term for “careless” is “粗心," which literally means “thick heart.” A common term for "sad” is “難過,” which literally means “hard to pass.” And a common term for “metaphor” is “暗喻,” which literally means “dark comparison.”

I give these examples to show how different Chinese can be from English in terms of language construction. In English, one word can have disparate meanings—think of the difference between “maroon” as a color and as a verb. This tendency of English to assign different meanings to the same word is one factor that can make even single words difficult to translate to Chinese.

The quasi-official Chinese translation of “critical race theory” is “批判性種族理論.” Although “性種族理論” does capture the idea of “race theory,” the first part—”批判”—does not capture “critical” as an English speaker would understand it in “critical race theory.” Though the primary challenges for acceptance of critical race theory, especially among Chinese American readers, involves factors such as its mischaracterization as a call to kneecap Asian American progress in favor of other ethnic groups, the “mistranslation” of the term may reinforce these false ideas that critical race theory is designed to target specific individuals or ethnic groups, rather than large-scale social and political systems. The debate over critical race theory, specifically regarding these larger negative misunderstandings of it, has been addressed by many other articles. In the face of all these different contentions against critical race theory, it remains important to understand that critical race theory is a movement that seeks to reform a broken system, not to sabotage it further.

“批判” has negative connotations, as it generally means to criticize, to point out the faults of, or to express disapproval towards.For example, Fox News is known to “批判” Democrats, while the New York Times “批判” Republicans. “批評” appears as such in the famous Chinese novel, Romance of the Three Kingdoms: 「統手中批判,口中發落,耳內聽詞,曲直分明,並無分毫差錯差錯。」In this scene, someone named Tong holds written criticisms in his hand while speaking and listening, clearly judging right and wrong without even the smallest inaccuracy, as citizens prostrate themselves to him. Essentially, “批判” in general usage is about solemnly talking smack, which lends an inaccurately negative spin to the idea of critical race theory. .

To be fair, “批判” is used in the translations of many academic English terms that involve the word “critical,” like “critical realism” and “critical pedagogy.” That critical race theory also includes this word is not a term-specific distortion, but part of an unfortunate general pattern of translation. The difference is that, unlike other terms, critical race theory involves a topic that can be deeply fraught: race. And using “批判” implies that critical race theory’s goal is to criticize, or to make some type of moral judgment regarding race.

In fact, the purpose of critical race theory is not to criticize or praise specific racial groups. The term “critical” in “critical race theory” is used in the same way that an English teacher talks about “critical reading”—as entailing deep analysis from every angle. Similarly, we can use critical race theory to examine phenomena by considering how ideas about race are created and applied.

This does not mean that, as these phenomena are examined, using critical race theory leads to pointing fingers and calling names. Rather, it simply means considering how race and racial dynamics—which exist outside of individuals, in the way that sexism and classism do—may play a part in the creation of disparities in our world today.

Critical race theory is not about letting us play the victim or paint an aggressor. It’s not about making an issue out of race. Critical race theory shows us how race may already be part of our issues, so that we might place past events and current realities into a larger pattern of how people of color have been purposely disadvantaged.

As we reflect on the suffering that communities of color have faced, we need to ask ourselves how we will address these issues. Will we choose to think about it as something inevitable that we can only learn to avoid? Or will we choose to discuss and disassemble the root of this suffering? It is through analyzing—not criticizing—the ways in which race plays into oppressing people of color on a social and institutional level that we can demand change.


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