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.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.
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.
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.