When I was a kid, I never heard anything about Chinese New Year – I didn’t even know such a thing existed. Now that I’m an adult, I still hear nothing about Mongolian New Year, Ethiopian New Year or Mayan New Year; but Chinese New Year is big news.
In 2011 CNN Money published an article under the headline “U.S. Companies Fear the Chinese New Year”. In 2015 the Boston Globe published an article entitled “Chinese New Year and its Effect on the World Economy”. Both articles covered the negative effects of the holiday on American importers. Here in Brazil coverage is less focused on the economic significance of the festival (in large part, I expect, because Brazil imports fewer of its consumer goods from China than the North American economies do) and more on local commemorations and the local Chinese community. These two divergent foci reflect the two aspects of China’s ever-increasing significance around the world: hard power and soft power.
In the Year of the Dog, China is the world’s largest economy in PPP terms and the source of many of the world’s immigrant communities. China is the largest trading partner of the world’s major economies and the world’s largest consumer of a huge range of commodities. It’s only a matter of time before China’s nominal GDP overtakes that of the United States to become the world’s largest.
With economic growth comes linguistic and cultural importance. When I was a teenager in the late 1980s I studied Japanese at high school because that was the smart thing to do; ten years later the study of Japanese had progressed from an economic imperative to a matter of personal interest. That’s because Japan stopped being the future in 1992, when its asset price bubble burst and its remarkable postwar boom came to an end. In the mid-90s I studied Russian at university, but was twenty years too late in doing so – the Russian department at my university had a moribund feeling about it and was closed soon after I dropped out of the course. In 2000, when I moved to Taiwan and started to study Chinese, I was, at last, perfectly in step with history, or perhaps just a nose ahead of the curve: go to a bookshop nowadays and you can hardly move in the languages section for Chinese grammars. And as folks have started to learn to pronounce “Gong xi fa cai” correctly, they have also learned when and why they might say it.
In terms of its importance worldwide, Chinese New Year has been celebrated by Chinese people for thousands of years and has been commemorated by the Chinese diaspora for as long as one has existed. It has been the world’s largest annual movement of people for as long as Chinese people have been migrating from one place to another in search of a better job, i.e. since the beginning of the “Reform and Opening” period in the late 1970s, and has become a major event on almost everyone’s calendar, especially for marketing and similar commercial purposes, for the last ten or fifteen years.
This is a cultural change. Like me, most of you probably do not know much – or anything – about New Year traditions in Mongolia, Ethiopia or the Mayan regions of Central America. Like me, you may not have known much – or anything – about Chinese New Year until the start of the current century. Like the Chinese, you might hope for certain amount of prosperity from the year to come. I could at this point mention the very real virtues of our canine friends and extol their aptness as a lucky omen, but instead of that I’m going to say this: the year of the dog, like every year since the heaven-knows-when, is going to be a year of translation, and not least of translation to and from Chinese. When those of us who are not in China think about Chinese New Year, we would do well to reflect on the amazing transformation of our relationship with a country with which many of us had no real connection, commercial or otherwise, only twenty or so years ago. And if that reflection leads you to think more about quality Chinese translations as a way to help your business prosper, well, let’s just say that you won’t be barking up the wrong tree.