One of the big projects I’ve been working on the past few months is doing the English editing of some academic papers. Fortunately, most of them have been good translations, but every so often I find myself working on one that just hurts my brain. That was the case this past week, and it reminded me of an essay I wrote a few years back on the perils of Chinese-English translations. I thought it was about time to share it again:
On Thursday night my landlady called and asked if she could come to my apartment because she had some translation questions for me. Now anyone who has been in China for awhile knows the fear and dread that well up inside when someone calls asking for help with translation work. “Just read it over.” “It won’t take long.” Those words always precede hours of painful and laborious mental gymnastics trying to translate phrases like the one in the title of this post from what we call “Chinglish” to English.
My landlady and her husband have their own business producing publicity and promotional materials for schools in China. Since English is so popular, these materials (from DVD’s to brochures) must all be in English as well as Chinese–never mind the fact that very few English speakers will actually see or read them. In the China of 2005, one simply cannot produce something like this without any English in it. My landlady out-sources the translations to professionals; however, there are times when, for some reason, she doubts the accuracy of the translations, so asks me to look at them to see if the English makes sense and if it indeed accurately reflects the Chinese meaning.
Yesterday she had one such project for me, and that noise you heard emanating from the western side of Beijing on Friday was the sound of two cultures and languages clashing!
An interesting feature of Chinese discourse is the use of poetic and flowery language in nearly every conceivable context, formal and informal. A language that has been around for 3000 years has quite the collection of poetry, expressions, and idioms, and they are all to be used as much as possible.
The phrase “twinkling with inheriting and development achievement” is merely an extreme example. The document we worked on had line after line after line of such phrases, and I was supposed to see if the translations were OK. After hours spent trying to decipher these, one of two things happens. Either I read a sentence and decide it makes perfect sense (a sure sign that I have been in China way too long) or I must attempt to convince her that it is impossible to translate such a sentence. In fact, after yesterday, I am convinced that there should be a law against translating such sentences.
When I read it in Chinese, it makes perfect sense, but there’s no way to get it into a formal English sentence that both maintains the poetry and has meaning. Take your pick, Mrs. Li. You can’t have it both ways! Ah, but you see, in Chinese, they do have it both ways, because poetic language is not only permissible in formal writing, it is expected, for it is one of the main ways to demonstrate that one is a literate and cultured person.
After my brain was fried to a crisp trying to disentangle that mess of a sentence, we sat back and discussed the cultural differences. I explained to her that it was so difficult because in English we have different sets of rules for business writing than for essay writing. Poetic and creative language can be used in essays, but not in business writing. Therefore, when translating such phrases, I may be able to come up with some suitable English words that approximate the meaning, but their presence in such a formal setting is completely unacceptable.
Translating such a sentence is nearly impossible because it will never come out in a manner that suits both sides. If the Chinese person wins the argument that the emotional language remain, then it will be gibberish in English. If the English speaker wins, then the Chinese person will feel like the translation isn’t close enough to the original, in either meaning of feeling (and they’d be correct, of course).
In the course of the conversation (argument, really) with Mrs. Li, I learned the distinction between two Chinese words for written text: wenzhang and wenjian. Wenzhang is the word for essays or articles of a literary nature. Wenjian is the word for formal documents, like something a boss or leader might hand down to his/her underlings. Wenzhang demands emotional and flowery language. Wenjian is cold and impersonal, and implies authority, command, and distance. Poetic language is not used in wenjian, but it must be used in wenzhang.
Aha! I said to her. That’s the problem. In the mind of a Chinese speaker, a brochure like this is considered a wenzhang. An English speaker would consider it to be a wenjian. Finally a breakthrough in understanding (for both of us) as to why our languages were clashing. In her mind what we were translating was a wenzhang and in my mind it was clearly a wenjian. Finally she understood. Finally, I understood!
Wenzhang, Wenjian, …..let’s call the whole thing off!