Monday, December 10, 2012

Progress, or procrastination?

For a final entry in my War on Chinglish series, I feel compelled to cover one of my biggest pet hates in the local use of English. It's a pet hate not because of its linguistic inelegance or pointlessness, as with most of the entries in this series, but because of the unfortunate habit of thought it suggests.

The Chinese love to say step by step. In fact, it trips off their tongues so readily and speedily, it sounds as if they have compressed the noun phrase into a single hyphenated adjective/adverb: step-by-step.

I'd much prefer it if they said gradually.

Now, step by step, or even step-by-step, is not wrong as such. It's certainly possible English; though I would argue that gradually is easier to use appropriately, the more straightforward and natural thing to say in most circumstances.

However, what I really like about the adverb gradually is that it seems to me to emphasise the process. And thus, although the process may be slow and discontinuous, this word nevertheless makes us feel some confidence in an ongoing progress towards its eventual completion.

Step-by-step, as almost invariably used by the Chinese, seems to emphasise the stages in the process - reminding you of their essential separateness, and of the need for a cautious hesitancy in moving from one to the next. Most of the time, the English phrase that would more accurately convey their thought is baby steps - the suggestion that care and caution must take precedence, and that progress, if it happens at all, must necessarily be very SLOW. It is a way of deferring a goal so far that one loses sight of it altogether, a useful tool for emasculating any initiatives for reform. The Chinese commonly employ step-by-step in much the same way as the dread phrase "Thank you for your suggestion" - to dismiss your attempt to offer helpful advice, and let you know, obliquely but firmly, that in fact nothing is ever going to change.

[I wonder if the Chinese have a problem with adverbs for some reason? It does seem to be a common mark of Chinglish to prefer clunky noun phrases to simple adverbs. Another particular bugbear of mine is in an all-around way, which, while it is again possible English, has, through its grating ubiquity out here, become definitively Chinglish. The more natural English would be comprehensively, and I do my best to substitute this as often as I can in my editing work. Unfortunately, this damned phrase is a favourite political buzzword here. It is hugely annoying because it is so rampantly overused, and is such pointless filler - essentially meaningless, but supposedly carrying some reassuring suggestion of care and thoroughness (and harmoniousness, I daresay). It occurs at least half a dozen times in any official pronouncement; and in an all-around way has become accepted as the 'official translation'. I tried weeding it out of the English text of a trade treaty I was revising a while ago, but I'm sure the Foreign Ministry will have re-Chinglished it before sending it to press. Sigh.]

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