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Michel Oksenberg, A translation problem in the Joint Communique, January 3, 1979

Oksenberg, a China specialist and a member of the National Security Council staff, sent this memo to Zbigniew Brzezinski, the National Security Advisor to U.S. President Jimmy Carter. It focused on the use of a different Chinese term for “acknowledge” in the new communique.

January 3, 1979


You will recall that in the hectic days between December 13 and December 15, we never saw the Chinese translation of the joint normalization communique. We worked entirely from the English. We were assured by Leonard [Woodcock, head of the U.S. Liaison Office] that the translation posed no problems.2

I have now learned that the Chinese text departs from the Shanghai Communique in the Chinese rendition of the word “acknowledge” in the sentence that states, “The U.S. acknowledges the Chinese position that there is but one China and Taiwan is a part of it.”

In the Shanghai Communique, in the similar phrase, “acknowledge” was translated as “jen shih tao [认识到].” In the January 1 communique, “acknowledge” was rendered “cheng-jen [承认].” We have asked the Liaison Office why it felt comfortable with the change, and we have received the basically satisfactory response at Tab A. Nonetheless, we have tampered with the “holy writ” of the Shanghai Communique, and more than a few linguists are going to say that “cheng jen” denotes a stronger acceptance of the Chinese position than does “jen shih tao.”

Should this line of attack materialize, our response should be three-fold: (1) Both Peking and the U.S. worked from the English text, which uses the same language as the Shanghai Communique; (2) in any case, we have signed no documents, and our view is expressed in the English; (3) even were we to accept the Chinese language rendition, “cheng jen” is the wording used in other joint communiques, such as by the British, and the British also translate “cheng jen” as “acknowledge.”

Notes added by the U.S. State Department Office of the Historian:

Source of the memo: Carter Library, National Security Affairs, Staff Material, Far East, Oksenberg Subject File, Box 45, Meetings: 12/18–31/78. Secret; Sensitive; Alpha; Outside the System. Sent for information. At the top of the page, Karl Richard Inderfurth crossed out the word Alpha and wrote below it, “ZB, Shouldn’t we now dispense with the Alpha channel for PRC-related memos (except the most sensitive)? Rick.” It appears that below it, Brzezinski scrawled, “Yes.”

Tab A, backchannel message 241 from Woodcock to Vance and Holbrooke, December 30, 1978, provided background concerning the Chinese translation of the term “acknowledges” in the joint communiqué. Stapleton Roy of the USLO had learned of this translation choice late on December 15 when he read a Chinese-language text of the communiqué that he had received at the end of the meeting that day with Deng Xiaoping. A number of factors led the USLO not to inform Vance and Brzezinski about this issue, including Chinese assurances (supported by several English-Chinese dictionaries used at the USLO) that there was no substantive significance to this translation choice, the secrecy of the negotiations, the imminence of the normalization announcement, and the fact that the text of the communiqué had been negotiated in English. (Carter Library, National Security Affairs, Staff Material, Far East, Oksenberg Subject File, Box 45, Meetings: 12/18–31/78)

Brzezinski drew a line in the left margin highlighting this entire paragraph, underlined “expressed in the English,” and wrote, “Yes. ZB.”