This post is a re-run of something I wrote back in 2005. It's still one of my favorites, and since only a half dozen people were reading my blog back then, I decided to post 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 at the sound of someone 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
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 inheriting 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 they were OK. After
awhile of 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 have to 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 an
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
insists that the emotional language remain, than it will be gibberish
in English. If the English speaker wins, then the Chinese will feel
like the translation isn't close enough to the original (and they'd be
correct, of course).
In the course of the conversation, 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.
Aha! I said to her. That's the problem. To Chinese, a brochure like this is considered a wenzhang. In English, it would be considered a wenjian.
Finally a breakthrough in understanding (for both of us)….why the
languages were clashing. In her mind what we were translating was a wenzhang and in my mind it's clearly a wenjian. Finally she understood. Finally, I understood!
Wenzhang, Wenjian, …..let's call the whole thing off!