guangming office: historic questions of translation

Speakers of North American English such as myself often fall into linguistic rabbit holes when reading official Chinese documents. My confusion arises from what both Western Marxists and Chinese Party members might call “historic questions/ problems of translation (翻译的历史问题)”. Thus, although their are semantic overlaps, a city is not a 城市, an office is not a 办公室, a community is not a 社区, and a collective is not a 集体 because the respective geographies of the USA and PRC have been formed through vastly different cultural ecologies and property regimes.

In October 2011, for example, the 光明办事处社区集体经济建设工作领导小组办公室 published a small pamphlet entitled, “光明办事处:社区集体经济建设23问题)”. Identifying the author of this publication might daunt even the most intrepid of social translators. Let’s break it down.

光明 can be transliterated as “Guangming” to emphasize that in this particular combination refers to a place name. This process is relatively straight-forward. However, although 办事处 literally means “handling affairs (办事) place (处)”, its translation is not so straight-forward because within Shenzhen Municipality (深圳市), a Street Office 街道办事处 is a mid-level rank, directly beneath District (市区), in this case Bao’an. The question, of course, is: what to make of the missing “Street” in Guangming’s title?

This absence of the Street ranking is explained by the subsequent long and awkward expression 社区集体 that follows. In Shenzhen a Community (社区) is the lowest level of government organization, glossing the differences between villages (村) and neighborhoods (居委会) that used to comprise its lowest administrative levels. A collective (集体) refers to any level of the rural economy that has been jointly run, including farms (农场), communes (公社), and villages both administrative and natural (行政村 and 自然村). The expression “community collective” is confusing because it recombines to administrative levels that elsewhere in the city refer to historically distinct property regimes. The neighborhood is explicitly a late Shenzhen phenomenon, while a collective is a Maoist (presumably outdated and/or surpassed) institution.

All this to say, Guangming used to be a State Farm (农场) and now it’s not, but it has not yet fully transitioned into being a Street Office. Nevertheless, the means and goals of this “community collective” easily slip into normalized discourse, Economic Development (经济建设), which is led by a Guangming Office Leaders’ Sub-Committee (工作领导小组办公室). Consequently, inquiring minds have 23 question about what community collective development might be. These questions include, the amount of collectively held resources, why collectively held land and capital have not been re-distributed to former farm workers and other individuals, and the administrative structure of the economic entity of Guangming Office, as well as how former farm workers and their children will be issued stock and property rights within the new regime.

In order to help clarify the meaning of 光明帮实处 I provide the following images from a morning walking tour of Dongzhou, which used to be the center of the Guangming Farm. Of note? The buildings with their crumbling edges, residual occupations, and red paint “raze (拆)” characters reminded us that rural Bao’an had been centralized, organized, and rebuilt well before the collective began restructuring in 1999.

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