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'Very Sorry' Proves to Be Key Phrase

Diplomacy: Wording of U.S. letter of regret was thoroughly negotiated. But each side offers different Chinese translation.


BEIJING — When the U.S. declared itself not just "sorry" but "very sorry" for the loss of a Chinese fighter pilot, the government in Beijing finally had a phrase it could translate into a linguistically acceptable apology.

The nuance of language apparently paved the way for the release of the 24-member crew of the American spy plane detained since April 1. And it will go a long way toward determining how the Chinese people perceive the United States' intentions, spelled out in a key letter from U.S. Ambassador Joseph W. Prueher to Chinese Foreign Minister Tang Jiaxuan on Wednesday.

After days of diplomatic negotiations over the wording of the letter, the U.S. side agreed to insert the "very," breaking the stalemate that has kept the crew detained on Hainan island, according to a senior Bush administration official. The letter also said the Americans were "very sorry" that the U.S. Navy EP-3 intruded into Chinese airspace without verbal permission when it made an emergency landing after colliding with the Chinese jet.

But complicating matters, each side issued different Chinese translations of the document.

The version prepared by the U.S. Embassy in Beijing offered feichang baoqian as a translation of "very sorry." But state-run Chinese media used shenbiao qianyi, a phrase that means "to express a profound apology" but could suggest that the speaker is apologizing with some reservations.

Shenbiao qianyi is a "flexible, fuzzy" phrase, according to a veteran Chinese language expert, speaking on condition of anonymity.

The word the Chinese wanted, but didn't get, was daoqian, which means "to apologize."

"The American side ought to apologize to the Chinese people," Chinese President Jiang Zemin said last week, using the word daoqian. Government officials had dismissed as inadequate earlier official U.S. expressions of regret.

"Daoqian would be the word Chinese could accept most easily," the language expert said, but added: "Strictly speaking, there is no real difference between baoqian and daoqian.

"Anyway, without the character qian in there, I don't think there would have been a way out of the situation," he said.

The character qian comes from a classical Chinese character that means "bad harvest." The right half of the character means "to be inadequate" or "to owe something."

In Chinese, qian implies that the person delivering the apology is at fault. It also implies that the apology is made sincerely and seriously, not just a casual "Sorry about that."

"It's the sort of thing Japanese people would bow their heads when saying," the language expert said.

The political correctness of language has been serious business in China for millenniums, since the days when it was taboo to use the characters in an emperor's name. Lately, Chinese media have been careful to stick to the official description of the plane debacle, rendered as "the incident of an American military reconnaissance plane crashing into and destroying a Chinese military plane."

After news of the apology broke, China's official media quickly began reporting that some Chinese citizens were not satisfied.

"I think the U.S. government's way of apologizing can't satisfy people," company manager Su Wei told the official People's Daily online edition. Su said U.S. leaders should compensate China for its losses and apologize not in a letter, but in a live, globally televised news conference.

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