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Xiao Yu

Literary classics: what makes for a good translation?

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Xiao Yu

Hello all!

In English translation/retellings of any Chinese literary classic, or even a wuxia novel, what do you look for as a reader, or wished a version you read had done? What's more important: getting the author's every word translated, or deviating from exact words to get the points or spirit across?

Do you prefer word-for-word translations, or greatly abridged versions that are faster/easier reads?

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in_lab

I originally thought that getting the translation accurate is more important. But after reading Sydenstricker's accurate, but dry translation of The Tale of Genji, I think I would have been happier reading Arthur Waley's translation, which uses more colorful language, but is not as accurate. (By the way, there is a new translation available, so you don't have to choose between only those two any more.) In any case, I don't read condensed books.

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bokane

Fluidity of language is really important, and it's something that I find most Chinese-English translations, however competent, lacking in. The majority of stuff seems to be translated by academics, and while most of the time their scholarship is unimpeachable, their writing often leaves much to be desired.

A good case study, I think, would be to compare David Hawkes and John Minford's translation of 'Honglou Meng' with the Gladys Yang and Yang Xianyi translation. Hawkes and Minford translate the work into beautifully fluid, poetic English, but also make some deviations for the sake of readability. Hawkes even chose to correct (or at least amend) some major inconsistencies in the original text.

By comparison, the Yangs' translation, while in some places more accurate, is just not much fun to read. Hawkes translates poetic language into poetic language, favoring ten-dollar Latinate words ("pellucid," anyone?), and even renders the character Baoyu's recitations of Confucian texts into Latin. The Yangs use simpler language; what Hawkes translates as "verdant," they translate as "green." Their translation is fine, and perhaps even good enough - but it's not great.

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pazu

When I read Chinese translation of world classics, whenever I came across a Chinese idiom or slang, I wondered if it's an original translation, that the author really tried to express himself in this way, or just a "colorful" interpretation of the translator.

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Xiao Yu

Idioms...gotta love 'em :D If you're reading a translation vs a retelling of a story, they're probably the original sayings rather than the author's addition, I'd think.

Thanks for your input on the translation business. I've been under the impression that a lot of interesting, unique stories/novels are unknown outside China because the only translations are either vastly abridged or too dry of a literal translation to enjoy. Glad to know I'm not the only one :mrgreen:

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markalexander100

I'm a fairly hardcore literalist: if I read a Chinese book, I want it to read like a Chinese book, not like an English one (there are plenty of those already).

One of the reasons I want to read books written in other languages is to know how people express themselves in those languages, so I don't have any problem with idioms and cultural references being explained in footnotes, endnotes, parallel texts with marginal glosses...

(And definitely not abridgements. Student: "I'm almost finished Anna Karenina". Me: "Wow, that's a long book". Student: "Yes, it's eighty pages".) :-?

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bokane

But if you want to read books in other languages, why not read them in other languages? Any translation, no matter how dully literal, will involve compromises and interpretations, even if the translator chooses to create a concordance along the lines of "[Way / to speak / to guide / road] [may / permit / able / pleasing] [way / to speak/ to guide / road]."

Even the most conscientious and scholarly of translators can't help at some point injecting his own interpretation, because there is rarely a 1-to-1 correspondence between words in languages. Better to read the work of a translater who acknowledges that than to be lulled into a false sense of "knowing how people express themselves" in other languages.

(Note: explaining cultural references in footnotes is a-OK by me, and I agree that translating, e.g., 扁鹊 as "Aesclepius" would be lame and misleading. My beef is with people like the Yangs and Howard Goldblatt, whose translations suck all the fun out of the original works.)

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in_lab

It's great that there are people like David Hawkes and John Minford who are not only scholars of Chinese, but also great writers. However, there isn't enough interest in Chinese literature for there to be a lot of top-notch translations published. I think this is the main reason that quality and quantity of translation of Chinese literature lags behind other languages. One of the classics, Jin Ping Mei, is still being translated from Chinese. (There has been a tranlation from German available for a while.) This is a big contrast to translation Russian, German, and French literature.

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Xiao Yu

in_lab, you bring me back to my original question 8) what would make a translation a "quality" or "top-notch" one? I mean, in the classic texts full of poetry, it'd be so hard to do a good job with those...just getting the meaning across, let alone the rhythm and rhyme.

I think that when literally translated, you're most likely not getting the "original" feeling, because even the same word in both languages will carry different meanings. A rather dirty example that comes to mind :twisted: is the phrase "farting"; it may not mean more than a physical action in English, but it's a rather harsh way of saying, "nonsense" in Chinese. If that were translated literally, you might scratch your head in bewilderment without help from either a footnote or the translator just switching it for the word "nonsense"...

Sometimes I think retellings, if they get the spirit across, would be more effective than literal translations. Then, that might get enough interest in the original that people'll try to explore it for themselves. :D

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markalexander100
But if you want to read books in other languages, why not read them in other languages?

Obviously that would be the ideal, but we can't all go back to school for four years to learn Russian for Pushkin, then another four to learn Japanese for Basho, then another four...

A rather dirty example that comes to mind is the phrase "farting"; it may not mean more than a physical action in English, but it's a rather harsh way of saying, "nonsense" in Chinese. If that were translated literally, you might scratch your head in bewilderment without help from either a footnote or the translator just switching it for the word "nonsense"

How about "windy"? :wink:

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in_lab

What makes a good translation of a classic is scholarship and good writing. Understanding Chinese classics require research because of their antiquity. As for what makes good writing, ask an English teacher. If the source material doesn't allow for translation into "good writing" then you're not going to get a good translation. With most poetry, I'd say don't bother. If you're talking about poetry in stories, like in Xi You Ji, then it's a big problem.

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Xiao Yu
If you're talking about poetry in stories, like in Xi You Ji, then it's a big problem.

...where it's either time to acknowledge it'll probably sound like crap in translation no matter what, or just cry...

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