Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Lost in Translation or I'll Take an "M," Pat

Now, right now, as you're reading this, thousands of people halfway around the planet are trying to translate the word "rat-arsed" into perfectly idiomatic Chinese.

The Fourth Casio Cup Translation Contest is in full swing. Organized by the Shanghai Translation Publishing House, the goal of the contest is to translate a given English source text into Chinese.The text this time is "Reservoir Frogs (Or Places Called Mama’s)," a 1996 New Yorker piece by Salman Rushdie, on what Rushdie calls "the fine art of meaningless naming." Here's a sample (you can see the full text here [scroll down]):
As Luis Bunuel knew, obscurity is a characteristic of objects of desire. Accordingly, there is no trainspotting in Trainspotting; just a predictable, even sentimental movie that thinks it's hip. (Compared to the work of, say, William S. Burroughs, it’s positively cutesy.) It has many admirers, perhaps because they are unable even to understand its title, let alone the fashionably indecipherable argot of the dialogue. The fact remains: Trainspotting contains no mention of persons keeping obsessive notes on the arrival and departure of trains…Irvine Welsh’s original novel does offer some help. The section titled ‘Trainspotting at Leith Central Station’ takes the characters to a derelict, train-less station, where one of them attacks a derelict human being who is, in fact, his father, doling out a goodly quantity of what Anthony Burgess’s hoodlum Alex, in A Clockwork Orange, would call ‘the old ultraviolence’. Clearly, something metaphorical is being reached for here, though it's not clear exactly what. In addition, Welsh thoughtfully provides a glossary for American readers: ‘Rat-arsed--drunk; wanker - masturbator; thrush - minor sexually transmitted disease’. At least an effort at translation is being made. Out-and-out incomprehensibilists disdain such cosiness.

In 1928, Luis Bunuel and Salvador Dali co-directed the Surrealist classic
Un Chien Andalou, a film about many things, but not Andalusian dogs. So it is with Quentin Tarantino’s first film, Reservoir Dogs. No reservoir, no dogs, no use of the words ‘reservoir’, ‘dogs’ or ‘reservoir dogs’ at any point in the movie. No imagery derived from dogs or reservoirs or dogs in reservoirs or reservoirs of dogs. Nada, or, as Mr Pink and Co. would say, ‘Fuckin’ nada.’ The story goes that when the young Tarantino was working in a Los Angeles video store his distate [sic] for fancy-pants European auteurs like, for example, Louis Malle manifested itself in an inability to pronounce the titles of their films. Malle’s Au Revoir les Enfants defeated him completely (oh reservoir les oh fuck) until he began to refer to it contemptuously as - you guessed it – ‘those, oh, reservoir dogs’. Subsequently he made this the title of his own movie, no doubt as a further gesture of anti-European defiance. Alas, the obliqueness of the gibe meant that the Europeans simply did not comprenday.

To forestall any attempts at exegesis (‘Author, Citing Dadaism’s Erstwhile Esotericism, Opposes Present-Day “Mamaist” Obfuscations’), I confess that as a title it means nothing at all; but then the very concept of meaning is now outdated, nerdy, pre-ironic. Welcome to the New Incomprehensibility: gibberish with attitude.
A friend in China asked me some questions about the text—not about the translation (which would be against the rules and, besides, I don't know Chinese)—and, in the process of helping her, I began to think about how hard the art of translation really is. Like everyone, I've read bad translations but I hadn't really thought about translation from the translating end.

My friend was thinking "hip" means "fashionable" but, used here, it's more like a self-conscious knowingness of being fashionable—and the word itself is self-cancelling, its very use a comment on unhipness. "With attitude" is a confrontational, "tell-it-like-it-is" stance—it's a positive inversion of "having an attitude" which I always thought of as a sort of sullen hostility—it's hard to imagine that a similar word exists in Chinese.

And then there's the transmutation from "Au Revoir Les Enfants" to "Reservoir Dogs." How do you manage that in Chinese while retaining the essential meaninglessness of it all? The Chinese releases of those films must have titles—do you go with those or with some specially transliterated versions to show just how Tarantino's mangled French and strange disdain led to a meaningless yet slightly similar title?

A site devoted entirely to the Harry Potter books in Chinese, Japanese, and Vietnamese translation provides some fascinating clues as to how translators deal with thorny translation problems. (Disclaimer: I have never touched a Harry Potter book.)

In Book One, Chapter 5, Harry asks Hagrid the eternal question: "What's the difference between a stalagmite and a stalactite?" Hagrid, not feeling up to geological exegesis (as Sir Salman might say), replies: "Stalagmite's got an "m" in it. An' don' ask me questions just now, I think I'm gonna be sick."

In Chinese, stalactite is zhōng-rǔ-shí ("hanging-bell milk rock") and stalagmite is shí-sǔn (''rock bamboo-shoot''). No "M" in sight. What do you do?

If you're the Mainland Chinese translator, well, there's no problem: Hagrid says: "There's an "M" in the middle of zhōng-rǔ-shí." Well, true enough as a translation but that answer must leave Chinese readers scratching their heads.

If you're the Taiwanese Chinese translator, Hagrid says "zhōng-rǔ-shí is made up of three characters" (the word shí-sǔn , after all, has two), effectively getting at the irritated non-answer of Hagrid's reply.

Another example: one character, Fleur Delacour, is referred to by the contemptuous nickname, "Phlegm." So how do you come up with a nickname that sounds like "Fleur" but with the disgusting properties of "phlegm"?

This time the Taiwanese Chinese translator comes up with a true masterpiece: Fleur in the Taiwanese version is named Huār meaning 'flower'; the contemptuous nickname for her is Wār meaning "frog" which might be considered a suitably slimy substitute for "phlegm" and, as a bonus, mocks the French accent of the character (who drops her "h's").

So, a particularly gifted translator can convey the essence of the original in another language. (And, in a few rare cases, the translation surpasses the source. Gabriel Garcia Márquez said that Gregory Rabassa's English translation of Márquez's Cien anos de soledad "improved the original.")

Still, contemplating the flawless translation of Rushdie's piece—or any translation of a difficult literary piece—now fills me with new-found awe and trepidation—awe at the idea that a translator could overcome the seemingly insurmountable obstacles and craft a fully Chinese version, and trepidation at the actual odds stacked against doing so, both illustrated by the judges' choices in the previous Casio translation competition.

Awe? One of the judges described the translation of the second prize winner as "the one that you could barely recognize as a translation. In other words, [John] Updike's story ["The Delicate Wives"] read as though it were written in Chinese originally."

And trepidation? Well, what about the first prize winner? There wasn't any—the judging panel said that none of the entries submitted was worthy of the honor of winning the top prize.

Even so, I'm hoping one of those people now puzzling over the Mandarin version of the word "rat-arsed" nails it this time.


Karen M said...

Jeff: This is a fascinating post. Thank you...

You remind me of a piece from William Zinnser's On Writing Well in which he describes a trip to jazz musicians took to China (not long after it was "open" again) and how they had to teach the Chinese about both jazz and improvisation, for which there were (at that time, anyway) no equivalents in their language or thought. It was a lovely piece of writing... and thought-provoking. Like this post.

William Timberman said...

One of my favorite exercises ever in German composition was to take the German translation of a passage from For Whom the Bell Tolls, and afer rendering it into English, compare it with the original Hemingway.

Needless to say, red faces all around, mine being the reddest of all. The memory, forty years on, still gives me shudders.

certifiedprepwn3d said...

I dig this post wholly! Reading translations (doing them if possible) might be the best way to really figure out what your own language means. Though, as a hobby, I prefer the poorly done ones.

Frankly, my dear, ... said...

Bringing up German reminds me of one of my favorite translation stories, even though it doesn't involve a German translation. While watching Sam Peckinpah's Cross of Iron in France, there is a scene in a pillbox or bunker where a young German is on lookout when he spots a column of Russian armor moving up the road. He turns around and yells "Tanks! Tanks!" And the subtitle obligingly says "Merci, Merci."

Karen M said...

That is hilarious! Thank you! Obrigada! Gracias! Danke! etc....

Jeff W said...

Thanks, everyone! I was concerned that post might be a little "esoteric." Well, not to get too "meta" about it, but helping other people (like my friends in China) with English makes me far more aware of the "unconscious" rules and meanings in English. (I might write a post with some examples.)

Actually, as I was finishing up this post, some more communication with my friend in China pointed up yet another example of the devilishly perverse "inverseness" of translating that particular piece:

Rushdie writes this line: "Can anyone recall the meaning of the terms ‘Koyaanisqatsi’ and ‘Powaqqatsi’?" Well, apparently, the Chinese titles for those movies are just direct translations of those Hopi words—that is, the titles, unfortunately, are perfectly intelligible in Chinese. So, if you translate it "straight," Rushdie's question becomes unintelligible! Chinese readers are left wondering just what "meaning," exactly, is there to "recall"?

That "tanks" story reminds me of the old Borscht Belt joke: Is the state pronounced Hawaii or Havaii? A call to the governor of Hawaii, of course, resolves the issue: Havaii, the governor says, definitively. Thanks, governor! "You're velcome," he replies. Apologies, but I couldn't resist…

Karen M said...

‘Koyaanisqatsi’ wasn't that film title about things happening too fast?

Jeff W said...

Yes. Apparently, according to Wikipedia, the word translates as "life of moral corruption and turmoil" or "life out of balance." The Chinese title translates as "imbalanced life."

Powaqqatsi translates as "life in transition." The Chinese is along the lines of "Life in Evolution" or "Change in Life."

William Timberman said...

Jeff, I got so wrapped up in my own little anecdote, I forgot to say thanks. This was a superb post. A big H/T to you.

Jeff W said...

Thanks, William and also Certfied! Coming from you and the other commenters here all of whom post beautiful gems of writing, that means a lot to me.

John Cowan said...

Jeff W: That's only the inner part of the Hawaii/Havaii joke. It's wrapped in a frame where a would-be jokester tells his mother this joke and then waits for her to laugh. Instead, she looks puzzled and inquires "Vot's funny?"

The discussion of the Chinese translation of Douglas Hofstadter's book Goedel, Escher, Bach which appears in his later book Le Ton Beau de Marot (it's in English, as I kept having to explain to people who saw me reading it and addressed me in French) is full of this kind of stuff. Indeed, the whole book is about (among other things) translation issues.

ondelette said...

This is a great post, Jeff. I'm confused though. I can understand that there's an M in the middle of zhong ru shi, I guess, but that M is in both mainland and Taiwanese characters, isn't it? (referring to the "claw" at the top left of ru -- which isn't simplified).

Or am I being dense?

Jeff W said...


That definitely elevates the joke to a whole new level.

Thanks for the tip regarding Douglas Hofstadter's book Le Ton Beau de Marot. It sounds fascinating and is on my reading list.


I'm flattered you're commenting on my post, as I'm always thoroughly impressed by your comments on Glenn's blog.

The original English (as quoted on that site I referred to) says "Stalagmite's got an 'm' in it." I had thought that the implication of that Mainland Chinese example was that the translator had merely translated directly from the original English. I realized after I posted that the Chinese quote provided in fact refers to zhōng-rǔ-shí, that is, stalactite.

So yesterday I wrote to Greg Pringle, the author of the site. Greg graciously replied, saying that, unless he had made a "terrible copying error," the Mainland translator did put the M in stalactite, not stalagmite, and he (Greg) would annotate the article upon confirming it—but he was unable to answer right away as his Harry Potter books were in Beijing and he was elsewhere. In other words, if he himself had not made an error, he had not noticed the switch from the English stalagmite to the Chinese word for stalactite either (or else, presumably, he would have noted it at the outset)—which, at least, made me feel somewhat better for having missed it also.

Your interpretation regarding the "claw" in the (the same character in the Mainland and Taiwan, as you said) is completely ingenious, actually—but I think if that were what Greg thought was intended, he would have just said so. (And I just asked a friend of mine in China, admittedly a sample size of 1, if he would ever interpret the character for as having an "M" in it and he said no.)

I suppose we'll have to await Greg's answer upon his return to Beijing, unless someone else has a Mainland Chinese version of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone handy.

Anti-Tron said...

Is it OK to bitch about one's aversion to *bad* grammar/usage/spelling?

Unless someone is an underwriter, they aren't "insuring" anything. They are "ensuring" something.

If you are conforming to the requirements, you aren't "towing" a line. Ships might do that. You "toe" the line - i.e. go right up to it but not over it.

Thanks for letting me spout.

Bryan Hayward

P.S. I know of someone on iidb.org that uses "Koyaanisqatsi" as a handle. Glad to know what it means. Thanks!!

Jeff W said...

I realize, in the cold light of day, that, in my previous comment. I might have missed the irony in ondelette's speculation entirely—so I guess I'm the one who's a bit dense (and now embarrassed), if that's the case. (It's been a rough few days.)

Karen M said...

Well, I don't know, Jeff... but I have found the whole conversation fascinating, to the degree that I have understood it.

Sometimes, temporarily missing an element of Irony-- and I'm not saying you did, because I read it straight, too-- only adds to the fun.

I know a really smart Chinese-American girl a little bit, and she's about the right age, if you'd like me to ask her anything.

ondelette said...

Jeff: On Greg's speculations about the origins of zhong ru shi: Probably it isn't "a milky hanging bell", as sweet as that metaphor may be, but rather the other meaning of ru which is nipple or teat/breast, refering to the shape.

BTW, if you look at the simplified character for sun (as in shi sun) there is a sideways M in it (takes a little imagination) which isn't in the Taiwanese version. I am not surprised the Chinese didn't see the M in ru, finding weird things in Chinese characters is an American sport, not a Chinese one.

Jeff W said...

Thanks, Karen, for your nice words and your offer.

I realized it might a little difficult following the conversation if you're not be familiar with the character (breast, nipples; milk, suckle)—so you can see it here. The "M" (or "claw") is the upper left part of the character.

ondelette pinpoints the problem: would a Chinese person think of an M as being in this Chinese character? (Or, in more Chinese terms, would someone Chinese think of the "claw" part of the character as being an M?) I wouldn't place a whole lot of money on it. (That's why, on reflection, I had thought ondelette might have been slyly ironic.)

I'm not sure which implication of rǔ—milky color or breast-shaped—is meant in zhōng-rǔ-shí, ondelette. A Chinese friend (a different one) checked just now and (in about 30 seconds) found support for both—but thought that milky color was more likely because zhōng "bell" already refers to the shape. You might have to duke that one out with Greg Pringle.

Frankly, my dear, ... said...

Is it OK to bitch about one's aversion to *bad* grammar/usage/spelling?

Bryan, not only is it OK, we encourage it.

Unless someone is an underwriter, they aren't "insuring" anything. They are "ensuring" something.

Yes — but there was a time when 'ensure' and 'insure' meant the same thing. But OED says that the use of 'insure' to mean 'ensure' is now obsolete. One of the reasons that nominally obsolete forms refuse to die is because of encouragement from similar, still-living forms. In this case, I thing the culprit is "inquire/enquire", which most dictionaries consider free variants. I myself tend to see it as an American/British distinction since I note that Americans tend to use 'inquire' while Brits have a preference for 'enquire' (and likewise with the nouns, 'inquiry/enquiry', etc.).

If you are conforming to the requirements, you aren't "towing" a line. Ships might do that. You "toe" the line - i.e. go right up to it but not over it.

Quite right. There is also the alternative "toe the mark". It originally referred to runners in a race putting their toes on the line before the start of the race. They then couldn't move until the starting signal.

But this is part of a widespread phenomenon known as "pronunciation spelling". As a result we have people writing about "reigning in" runaway politicians rather than reining them in (i.e., pulling on their reins to check their speed). And just recently we had someone writing about "hair-brained schemes" when what was meant was presumably "hare-brained schemes". One does have to wonder whether those who do this on a regular basis really don't know the difference or they just aren't taking the time to think about (and realize) what they are saying.

Karen M said...

"'reigning in' runaway politicians"

Sometimes, F,md... I think they are just telling the truth unintentionally.

Welcome, Bryan! Please, feel free to bitch about spelling, usage, anything like that.

If you don't see a relevant topic posted, you can always look for an open thread, and maybe it will turn into a topic for a post.

But, no strict turf rules, either. You can add an OT comment if the need arises. Sometimes, these things just won't wait. ;~)

Michael said...

Yes, Jeff, a great post. And I do recommend the movie ‘Koyaanisqatsi’ which I interpret as "Life out of sync."

Take care,
Mike S-R [sent from Starbuck's in Syosset, Long Island.]

Joseph K said...

Greg Pringle here.

Indeed, the Chinese does appear to say 钟乳石这个单词有个‘m ’在里面. That is, 'stalactite' has an M in it. (The above is from an Internet search). After all these years trying to remember the difference, I still didn't notice that the Chinese translator got them back to front!

I find it hard to see that the word 钟乳石 (and the Chinese says word, not character) has an M in it. But there are only two explanations for the strange translation mistake: Either the Chinese translator got stalactite and stalagmite mixed up. Or the translator really did mean to say that 钟乳石 (specifically 乳) has an M in it. The more I look at it the more I incline to the latter explanation.

But even so, if this is what was meant, the translator is being too cute (or subtle) for her own good. I think a lot of Chinese readers would really be scratching to find an M in there!

Joseph K said...

I should add that MeHelp, in his very thorough analysis of errors in the Chinese translation, points out the following error in the same chapter:


O 58: They plunged even deeper, passing an underground lake where huge stalactites and stalagmites grew from the ceiling and floor.

T 45: 他们已经冲到地底下更深的地方,经过一片地下湖,上面挂满了巨大的钟乳石和石笋,一直垂到地上。 They plunged even deeper, passing an underground lake where huge stalactites and stalagmites grew down from the ceiling, reaching the floor.

C: ['stalactites and stalagmites grew from the ceiling and floor' mistranslated]

FC: {LPH are lacking in common knowledge. They don't know how stalactites and stalagmites were formed. Misleading readers)

(End of quote)

(The above quote is from http://wwwcjvlang/Hpotter/mehelp/book1.html#5

So it's quite possible that the translator did get the two mixed up!

Joseph K said...

Sorry, got that URL wrong:


Joseph K said...

Concerning the meaning of 鍾乳石, there is a question at Japanese goo answers -- a bit like Google answers -- about the presence of 'milk' in the word. The URL is http://oshiete1.goo.ne.jp/qa2417780.html

One posting says that the name 鐘乳石 (note that the first character may be written two different ways) traces back to the 鐘, an ancient Chinese bell-like instrument. The stalactite took its name from the nipple-like decorations on the outside of the instrument.

A picture of the instrument in question can be found here:

I am not able to vouch for the validity of this etymology, but it seems convincing.