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In Celebration of International Mother Language Day: A Q&A with Professor Yu Yang

Image by Surendran MP

21st February is International Mother Language Day, a worldwide annual observance to promote awareness of linguistic and cultural diversity and to promote multilingualism. This year the International Mother Language Day focuses on the theme 'multilingual education - a necessity to transform education'. The EnGRG has been working actively to bring together the energy scholars across countries and languges. To promote multilingual education and knowledge exchange, the EnGRG has already created the WeChat site, and successfully established connections with the colleagues in France and China). This is an ongoing projects and the committee is committed to offer a multilingual space for the energy education.


On this special occasion, EnGRG invites Professor Yu Yang from the Institute of Geographic Sciences and Natural Resources Research (IGSNRR), Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS) to share his experience and ideas on working in both the mother language (i.e., Chinese) and English as an energy geographer.


Yu Yang is a Professor of Energy Geography and a principal investigator of an Excellent Young Scientists Fund of the National Natural Science Foundation of China (NSFC). He is committed to cross-cultural communication in geography academia. He spearheaded the translation of two books on geography in English, the first of which had been published as International Trade: The Basics by American economic geographers, and the other in the process of revision is Energy and Society: A Critical Perspective by British energy geographers.

For more personal details, please refer to the link below.

Q1: You are a representative energy geographer in China and have published papers not only in Chinese but also in English. Please talk about your experience of conducting energy geography research in two different languages at the same time.

A1: Energy issues are in the spotlight around the world, and in China as well. Chinese geographers are also becoming more international and are placing a lot of emphasis on publishing in English journals and looking forward to interacting with their international colleagues. The biggest thing I feel about using different languages for energy geography research is the issue of differences in ways of thinking and language habits. One of my PhD students and I have recently been translating a monograph on energy geography in English—Energy and Society: A Critical Perspective—which was co-authored by seven founding members of EnGRG, led by renowned energy geographer Professor Gavin Bridge. During the translation process, we became acutely aware that the translation was not only a shift in language expression but more importantly a transition of cultural background and mindset. In terms of disciplines, although British and Chinese scholars are both from human geography, human geography is identified as a part of the natural sciences in China. This means that Chinese human geographers are more likely to advocate the need to use mathematical methods to analyse problems. But in the UK, human geography is traditionally recognised as a part of the social sciences, with an emphasis on thinking critically about human and social phenomena. The different orientation of the discipline also influences the orientation in the way of thinking. So, when we translated Energy and Society, we felt a radical difference. In the process of translation, the energy issues addressed in it felt familiar and unfamiliar to us. Familiar because we were also working on similar energy issues, unfamiliar because we found a clear difference in the perspective of concern. In particular, some of the details of critical thinking in terms of language expression are challenging compared to the language of the natural sciences. However, it was also the case that we were able to gain a deeper sense of the diversity of understanding of the same research question that is brought by cross-linguistic and interdisciplinary communication. The translation was therefore very rewarding and we were eager to introduce it to our Chinese colleagues. I think this is also the beauty of intercultural communication.


Q2: What language difficulties did you encounter in the translation process and what did you experience?

A2: In China, ‘信, 达, 雅’ are three recognized standards or principles for translators, specifically, ‘信’ means that the meaning does not contradict the original text, and the translation is accurate; ‘达’ means that the translation is not bound to the form of the original text, and the sentences are fluent; ‘雅’ means that the words chosen in the translation are appropriate, and the translation is concise and elegant. However, for us non-specialist translators, all three aspects are challenging to a greater or lesser extent. Firstly, some English words are difficult to find exact equivalents for in Chinese, such as ‘landscape’, which may be obscure in the native language if the original meaning is sought, and which the average reader will find confusing. As a result, we had to use a more general translation of the words and emphasise the authors’ original meaning in the footnotes. Secondly, the order of the parts of the sentences in Chinese and English is inconsistent, and there are a large number of interjections in English, but this phenomenon is not common in Chinese grammar. These sentences need to be broken up into multiple sentences for processing, and a one-to-one translation cannot simply be made. The requirement for a concise and elegant translation is even more difficult. The good thing is that the editors at the Chinese publishing house are very conscientious and responsible, and they also give our translation a strict second check. Our translation has now been revised several times and we are looking forward to its official publication soon.


Q3: Apart from this translation work, what do you think are the differences between Chinese and British research in energy geography? Is there a difference in the focus of attention?

A3: In terms of research paradigm, as mentioned earlier, quantitative analysis based on multiple sources of big data is now more advocated in Chinese geography while perhaps more qualitative research is advocated in the UK. In terms of research themes, I have recently been revising a review paper on energy geography research in Chinese with one of my PhD students, which involves a comparison of Chinese and foreign research objects and underlying theories We believe that due to the differences in national contexts, Chinese energy geographers are more focused on serving the needs of national economic development. For example, the comprehensive investigation of natural resources in the early years of the People’s Republic of China, the issues of the distribution of world resources and energy trade because of the massive domestic energy demand, and the recent adjustment of the energy structure from coal as the core to the development of renewable energy such as wind power and photovoltaic. These are determined by China’s energy resource endowment and stage of development. By contrast, there is a larger community of geographers in the UK than in China when it comes to more micro-human needs, such as in the areas of energy justice and energy poverty.


Q4: Please tell us about your research on energy geographies.

A4: My research on energy geographies began over ten years ago and now I lead a small team working on it together. We have received continuous funding from the National Natural Science Foundation of China (NSFC) and have been conducting research mainly on the theme of ‘Global Energy Geographies and National Energy Security’, exploring how China can better participate in energy trade and international cooperation. We propose the concept of ‘geo-energy power’, which explores the composition of energy power with a geography perspective, including control of resources, trade/ corridor, technology, and capital. Based on this, we focus on the process of China’s energy interactions with the world, and how different powers influence the global energy landscape. We also do some work on regional sustainable development. We have continued to undertake a series of regional planning projects in resource-rich areas, old industrial bases, and economically developed regions of China to analyse the role of energy in regional sustainable development based on our understanding from field works.


Q5: What are your expectations for the future of intercultural exchange?

A5: Research on the carbon emissions from energy use in China is gaining much international attention at the moment. These studies tend to be on energy economics and policy. In contrast, the voices of Chinese scholars are still relatively few in the disciplinary perspective of human geography. Cross-cultural communication is very necessary and important. Driven by globalisation, energy issues are not a national or regional matter but have become our common concern along with global production networks and actions against climate change. I believe that our team and more Chinese geographers are keen to learn about the research of foreign scholars and looking forward to the opportunity to collaborate on research together. Of course, we are also very eager to introduce our research to international scholars, but this requires greater tolerance of our research by international scholars in terms of language and habits of expression. After all, in cross-cultural communication, critical thinking requires greater linguistic skill, but this should not be a barrier to our mutual understanding. SAGE publishing invited me to develop a new journal Transactions in Energy and Sustainability, which will be published in the English language and may begin to call for papers this year. The journal will focus on the story of China in the global energy transition and is also keen to welcome international scholars to publish research on the global energy transition so that the story of the global energy transition can be enriched for a wider audience around the world. It is expected that this journal will become a new platform for exchange between Chinese and foreign energy geographers.

EnGRG Reflections and Comments

Chair’s Reflections - Peter Forman (Chair 2020 – 2023)

In the context of the global challenges surrounding climate change, the (trans)formation of global energy markets and circulations, and the emerging forms of geopolitical, economic, cultural, and environmental conflict associated with these shifts, it has become increasingly important to find more and better ways to speak across cultural and language divides within the field of energy studies.


In recent years, the Energy Geographies Research Group (EnGRG) has consequently been working to facilitate global conversations around space and energy, and in the process have targeted a number of barriers to conversation. These barriers have included language and cultural distinctions, timezones, disciplinary and sub-disciplinary differences, and gender divisions. With regards to language and culture, we have shifted the majority of our events online, opening them up to a global audience, and have significantly increased the number of events we offer. We have also significantly expanded our executive committee to include representatives from a wider range of countries and cultures (leading to the development of new channels for publicising our activities in Mandarin and French), and have held conversations around how to improve the inclusivity of online activities, resulting in events being mindfully scheduled so that they complement particular timezones, our events being recorded and made freely available online, and the Zoom transcription function being liberally used. However, there still remains much work to do in this area (indeed, AI tools such as transcription and translation services may prove invaluable in the future).


Major questions also exist over the implications of current attempts to bridge language barriers. Two of the most salient include: 1) who does the work of translation, and 2) what gets translated through these efforts. The first issue concerns the time and effort required to translate texts. This work has typically fallen upon non-native English speakers, an arrangement that effectively further cements the global hegemony of English-speaking academia. Emerging AI tools such as ChatGPT may hold liberating potential in this regard, but will likely encounter similar issues concerning accuracy and the translation of concepts across cultural registers that Professor Yang acknowledges above.


The second issue concerns representation. Because not everything can be translated, decisions have to be made over what gets translated into which languages. There is therefore a danger of certain kinds of work becoming privileged over others, with dividing lines being drawn between work from authors of different career stages (for example, with only the work of established authors becoming translated), different scales (privileging local, regional, national, global, or planetary research, for instance), conceptual or empirical focus, specific methodological approaches, or along further linguistic lines (for instance, with only texts written in English becoming read and translated). As such, critical reflection needs to be paid to these decisions moving forward, as well as to their potential consequences for facilitating much-needed engagements with the pressing energy challenges of the 21st century.

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