The well-known phrase “four freedoms”, first coined by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in his famous State of the Union speech, has probably been translated to most languages to most nations (especially if democracy is valued). Here is the famous quote:
In the future days, which we seek to make secure, we look forward to a world founded upon four essential human freedoms. The first is freedom of speech and expression everywhere in the world. The second is freedom of every person to worship God in his own way everywhere in the world. The third is freedom from want which, translated into world terms, means economic understandings which will secure to every nation a healthy peacetime life for its inhabitants everywhere in the world. The fourth is freedom from fear which, translated into world terms, means a world-wide reduction of armaments to such a point and in such a thorough fashion that no nation will be in a position to commit an act of physical aggression against any neighbor anywhere in the world.
The English to Chinese translation of the “four freedoms”, however, are recently problematized by HUANG Fenbao, in an journal article appeared Chinese Science and Technology Translators Journal (2010, vol 23, issue 4). He pointed out that although many English to Chinese translators translate the “four freedoms” as “四项(个)自由”, a closer examination of President Roosevelt’s inspirational quote reveals that the meaning of the word “freedom” is actually polysemous, that is, it has more than one meaning.
Freedom, according to the New Oxford English-Chinese Dictionary, refers to “the power or right to act, speak, or think as one wants without hindrance or restrain”. This layer of meaning aligns well with the first two “freedoms” mentioned by the president, and can be translated into Chinese as “自由”. The last two “freedom”, however, means something quite different. Relying on American Heritage Dictionary, HUANG argues that these two “freedoms” in fact mean “exemption from unpleasant or onerous conditions”, and should NOT be translated as “自由”, but as “脱离，摆脱，免除”, or “豁免”. So translating the phrase “four freedoms” as “四项(个)自由” can be considered as inaccurate or unfaithful, if not misleading. A much better translation of the last two “freedom”, as put forward by HUANG, and we agree, is: 第三项是摆脱贫困。第四项是远离恐惧。
This shows that, as English to Chinese translator, we should be aware that in English to Chinese translation or interpreting, there is more to it than simple conversion of words. We also need to put the context into perspective and really understand the subtle differences and shades of meaning in English, and try to put it in Chinese as authentic, reliable and appropriate as possible. This might also be true to translations in general. On the other hand, it also shows that machine translation, at least in this respect, still can’t compete with human English to Chinese translator, as discussed in an earlier post.
Interested readers are referred to HUANG’s full article for detailed discussion.