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Problematic Translations


Nathan Mao

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In my studies, I've ran across some standard translations that just don't really work for me.

 

For example, 让 is usually translated as "let" or "make", but many times 让 is used in a way that is less coercive than "make" but more directive than "let".

 

Or 东西 is usually translated as "stuff", but there are some uses that are more...derogatory than just "stuff".

 

If you disagree, please share your thoughts.

If you agree, what solution did you come up with? (I have my own solution to these two, but I'll wait to share it until after other people weigh in)

 

 

What Chinese words have you encountered that you are not fully satisfied with the standard translation?

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As well as "let" or "make", "让" could also be "have (smb. do something)", "get (smb. to do something)" or "ask (smb. to do something)".

 

As for "东西", it could be "stuff" or "thing", though I'm not sure what you mean by derogatory (unless you're talking about phrases like "坏东西").

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If you agree, what solution did you come up with?

Translate into idiomatic English rather than trying to force a translation that contains a translation of every word in the original.

 

Basically at the sentence/paragraph level I ask myself the question:

 

How would a native English speaker express this same concept/sentiment?

 

And go from there.  Then after translating I'd read it back to myself asking:

 

Does this sound natural to an English speaker with no knowledge of Chinese?

 

Then I go back and forth until happy.

 

Translating at the individual word level is rarely useful, for exactly the same reason as the issues you mentioned.

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You don't have problematic translations, you have a problematic translator. If you want to post specific examples and ask how they could have been handled better I'm sure people will advise. 

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Ah, my fault for not really being clear in my mind what I wanted to say before I posted.

 

There are times where you don't have time to go back and forth between English and Chinese to tweak the translation. 

 

For instance, if you have a large amount of text that must be translated in a short time, or if you have been asked to translate at sight (reading Chinese but speaking the translation out loud), or if you are interpreting (whether formally or informally).

 

When I started studying 20 years ago, the Defense Language Institute and the Little Red Dictionary (the Oxford Pocket Chinese-English/English-Chinese dictionary they issued us) only had "let" and "make" as translations for 让.  Some dictionaries still don't go beyond that.  I have also heard Chinese say they will "let" someone do something for them, making it sound like a privilege to serve rather than a request for help...they are translating 让 to "let" in the same manner.

 

In the situations where I have had to translate on the fly, many of the "standard" translations that I internalized as an initial learner proved inadequate. Over the years, I've re-learned better, more elegant translations.

 

Demonic Duck apparently had better dictionaries than I did.  The solution I came up with for 让 is exactly what he posted: in between allowance and coercion, there is "I'll get ____ to do ____" or "Have _____ do _____".  

Since coming up with that, I found that 让 seems to be used in that sense far more than "let" or "make".  (I also use "indulge" for 让着).  Not that it never means "let" or "make", just that if you encounter 让, you are more likely to be right if you immediately think "have/get“ instead of "let/make".

 

Regarding 东西, after years of encountering it, I know think of it as "crap".

In US English, at least as I was growing up, "crap" was the lower form of "stuff".  It was slightly derisive when used as "stuff" ("pick up your crap and leave!"), but would be offensive if you called someone crap, and fighting words if you said they were below even the level of "crap".

 

In the same manner, 东西 is often slightly derisive (consider the difference between 把你的东西拿走 and 把你的工具拿走 or 把你的书本拿走), but is offensive if you call someone 东西 and fighting words if you say someone doesn't even rise to that level (你不是个东西).

 

 

 

Anyway, I thought this might have been an enjoyable discussion of times someone encountered a tricky translation and how they found an elegant solution, but I guess I didn't do a good job of setting that up well.

 

My apologies.

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You can't teach something every extent of the nuances of the meaning of every new word, so it's inevitable that sooner or later you (general you) run into occasions where the go-to translation doesn't quite fit, or doesn't fit at all. And dictionaries, too, can only list so many meanings before expecting the reader to just figure it out.

And then it comes down to the skill of the translator, and how much time said translator is given to come up with something good. A translator that never learns to go beyond the go-to first translation option can get the job done fast and give the reader an idea of what the text says, but you wouldn't want that translator for something that needs to be published, or a sensitive policy document. A better translator with enough time on their hands can think about what exactly this word does in this context, and which word in the target language does the same in the same context. And this is where translation, in my opinion, gets interesting, and this is also why I don't believe translators will be made obsolete by google translate and the like.

Nathan Mao, perhaps you'd like to read some books on translation theory. I recently read Is that a fish in your ear, I think you might find it interesting. It might shine light on some other questions that you have come across in your career and that you may or may not have answered already yourself.

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To me, all the meanings given in a bilingual dictionary should be seen as symbolic, raw materials until you see the word in real contexts. Since the number of contexts a word can appear in can be very large, there are no realistic ways for dictionaries to go beyond the raw, symbolic level without becoming clumsy and unusable. As language learners, we're naturally expected to go beyond what is provided by dictionaries.

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