by: Yan Pu
My editor sent a text to me several months ago: “Hey, Yan. What’s going on with the rest of your translation? I’ve edited the twenty-one chapters you’ve translated. By the way, why did you use ‘she’ to refer to the pet dog all through your translation? I changed all of them into ‘it’.”
She said this with obvious disapproval of my “informal” Chinese. I was stunned and defended my diction immediately: “But you cannot change it! It is not me; the author uses ‘she’ in the fiction, because that family regards that dog as one of them, and ‘she’ is definitely more intimate than ‘it’. Moreover, none of my American friends uses ‘it’ when mentioning his or her pet.” So that was how she was persuaded (but she still added a footnote for it).
Such situations have happened often throughout my fledging translating career. Obstacles to translation come from all directions: linguistic difference, historical difference, cultural difference, societal difference, geographical/environmental difference…any point of difference could be the seed of confusion.
I was working on my short story in the fiction workshop recently. I wrote my first draft in Chinese, since it is the language that records my thoughts and feelings most precisely. When I began to rewrite it slowly in English, the cultural and societal blind spots that I didn’t notice before emerged one by one. First was when my classmates told me that the concept of “the ghost pounding the wall” was really cool. “Gui da qiang,” as we called it in Chinese, is referred to as the phenomenon that people experience when walking alone in the night or in some deserted places; no matter which way they go, they will return to the original place—as if they are hemmed in by an invisible circular wall, built by ghosts. It is something that most Chinese (at least in my generation and generations before me) would know. Then it was when I went to Writing Center revising my story. The counselor asked me, “What do you mean by saying ‘her car was under traffic control’?”
I told her that Chinese government issued a regulation to control the traffic flow, in the name of reducing the traffic congestion, as well as mitigating the air pollution (how smart they are!).
She nodded. “I think you really need to add one sentence to explain it.”
The two anecdotes raised my awareness of the cultural barriers, and I became more conscious of things which a Chinese person will take for granted while people in other cultures will be in sheer confusion and astonishment.
Translation is especially annoying when rendering “alien objects.” In the original fiction I was translating, the author once mentioned “root beer float”. It is a common beverage in the U.S.; however, people in mainland China, especially those in northern areas, seldom drink root beer and have no idea what on earth it is. The only existing translation is a literal one. I surmised that few if any people could understand the term when they first saw it.
How to make it easier to understand? “Root beer float” is the combination of root beer and ice cream. The possible confusion arose from two aspects: first, many Chinese don’t know what root beer is; second, the literal translation of “float” contributes further to the bewilderment. I began to think about the Chinese counterpart of the soft-drink-with-ice-cream beverage.
The first product came to me was KFC’s “Snow-topped Coffee.” It is the same thing with iced coffee as the base; the only difference is almost everyone in mainland China knows that “snow-topped” means putting a scoop of ice cream at the top of whatever soft drink.
Therefore, I conducted a test. I posted the literal translation of “floating root beer” and my revised version of “snow-topped root beer” on my Wechat (a Chinese chatting app which can also allow users to post their thoughts on it), asking how many of my friends heard of them before, as well as whether they can understand my translation of the beverage. Most responses were along the lines of “never heard of root beer, is that some kind of beer” and “I guess snow-topped root beer is something with ice cream”. My editor jumped out again, commenting that she didn’t know what root beer was either, and we needed another footnote here. Only one friend told me he knew root beer well and drank it a lot. We had the following conversation then:
“I often drink root beer in summer.”
“Wow! So how does it taste like? I wanted to buy some but didn’t find any in 7-11 and CVS.”
“Like Chinese medicated oil.”
“Ewww. No way!”
My friend Marian is writing her dissertation about elderly people in China. She Facetimed me in the morning one day and suddenly popped the question to me: “How do you translate ‘yang lao’ into English?” It was an unexpected question; I thought two seconds and answered with uncertainty: “Old age care or elderly care?” She said: “Yes! You see, the problem is that the elderly care system is not fully developed in China, so whenever people talk about their life in old age, they always use the broad term ‘elderly care.’ In Britain, when people talk about yang lao, they will refer to a specific service of elderly care, such as after life care, assisted living care, hospice care, and so forth. While in China, most elder people have no individual life, and when they talk about yang lao, they just think of living with their children, or living with other elders in the nursing home. I asked you because all the people I interviewed were elder people in China, and I want to confirm whether this vagueness of understanding comes from your age difference, or from the societal difference. It turns out that I must clarify the concept of Chinese elderly care in my dissertation now.”
Early this morning, I just finished (painfully) translating a script into English. There is a sentence in the outline that is quite amusing: “If the volatile stock market is like a blast of wind, then in those financial practitioners’ eyes, Y (our almighty hero) is feng zhi zi—not only because he is a talented stock operator, but also because he is the first person in China who owned a feng zhi zi, the luxurious sports car produced by Pagani.” In Chinese, feng zhi zi means “son of the wind,” and if you search information on Pagani Huayra in Chinese, the translation is “son of the wind.” Reading in Chinese, you will pass the sentence smoothly, without slightest hesitation. However, when translated into English, you will find out that the car’s name is interpreted as “god of the winds.” It doesn’t make sense as the writer wished any more. I guess the person who translated the name as “son of the wind” rather than “god of the winds,” because a three-syllable phrase “feng zhi zi” brings more rhythm than a two-syllable phrase “feng shen,” the god of winds.
Even in contemporary contexts, there are so many murky areas in translation, not to mention in ancient times. I wrote an essay about classical Chinese poetry translation and attempted to translate one poem myself: it was not only time-consuming, but also hair-consuming—it made me want to rip my hair out. It grieved me when I tried to explain the meaning of every word, the connotations behind the surface, and the images they brought up: what is meaningful, beautiful, and fierce to me became so pale and vain in another language.
Li Po’s (or Li Bai) poem, Thoughts of a Quiet Night, might be the most famous and the only Chinese poem most Americans know. It says, “Before the bed, bright moon light/ I took it for frost on the ground.” In fact, the term “bed” in the Tang Dynasty didn’t refer to the bed we know today. The bed in this poem is actually a type of chair, Hu chuang (the Hu-style chair). Hu chuang is similar to today’s folding chair and was imported from exotic areas during the Later Han (A.D. 25-220). Therefore, in this poem, the poet did not lie on his bed, but sat on a chair while gazing at the moon. Another classical misunderstanding arose by the chasm of time, of culture, and of language.
If rendering English into Chinese is the hard mode, then translating a classical Chinese poem into English is the hell mode. The most difficult part of poem translation is not what the poet has written, but what he/she hasn’t written explicitly in the poem. That’s where the beauty lies, in the ambiguity between the lines. I tried to revive Li Po’s voice in my English translation—a process of resuming a long lost love, or warming up your car in the cold winter morning. It was my first time really sitting down and analyzing every single word in the poem, Bidding Farewell to Official Collator Uncle Yun at Xie Tiao Tower in Xuanzhou. Clarity is a prerequisite for ambiguity, so I analyzed the meaning of every word, the multiple layers of the expression, the structure of the sentence, and the rhyme and rhythm of the poem.
The last line of the poem is “míng zh?o s?n fà nòng pi?n zh?u“— “tomorrow, [I will] loosen [my] hair [and] boat [on the river]”. In ancient China, cultivated people had to braid their hairs into tresses. The act of loosening hair was seen as the sign of an unruly, barbaric person. I couldn’t translate everything in the poem due to the lexical economy of poetry, but I could deliver the unyielding persona of the poet through the overall ambience: through the diction, image, tone, and rhythm of my translation. The final version is as follows:
Abandoned me, the day of yesterday
has gone forever.
Disturbs me, the day of today
only makes me worry and sore.
Thousands of miles, the long wind sends autumn geese to their way;
Seeing the scene, I can carouse a thousand cups of wine on the high tower.
As if from fairyland Peng-lai,
Your writings have the majestic strength of the Jian’an Era;
Freshness and elegance do for mine,
Resembling those of Xie Tiao, a genius marr’d!
High spirits resonate and grand thoughts soar,
What I long for
is to hold the bright moon in the azure!
Drawing out my sword, I try to sever the water,
Yet the water flows and flows even faster;
Raising a cup of wine, I try to cease my sorrow,
Yet my sorrow grows and knows no measure.
Living in a world where dreams only wither,
Why not loosen my hair and boat on the river?
Tomorrow, tomorrow, and thereafter.
This translation is surely not the perfect one, but it is the best I can do right now. Translation is a painstaking process, a road full of misunderstanding, confusion, frustration, and anguish. I wouldn’t have encountered those problems if I only spoke English or Chinese; they only occur in between, when I have to walk in the middle where two cultures meet, intersect, and conflict. I understand more about my own country and my culture during this process. As a late English learner and a half-hearted translator, the struggle is real. However, the pleasure of understanding and the serendipity of discovery come along with every torn hair.
Yan Pu is a first year M.F.A student at University of Pittsburgh in fiction track. She recently finished the Chinese translation of Our Souls at Night by Kent Haruf. She is at work on short stories about family, myth and legend, as well as other interesting aspects of China.