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Fred0

"The Ancestor,"  祖宗 by Bi Feiyu 毕飞宇

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Fred0

These are the openning two sentences of "The Ancestor,"  祖宗 by Bi Feiyu 毕飞宇.

 

太祖母超越了生命意义静立在时间的远方。
整整一个世纪的历史落差流荡在她生命的正面和背面。

 

My problem is understanding the meaning of 落差流荡. 

 

Beyond that problem, John Balcom translates the first sentence as: Standing quietly at the far end of time, Great grandmother has transcended the meaning of life. I find this translation unsatisfactory in two ways: what can it mean to transcend the meaning of life, and where is the far end of time. I would like to translate the sentence as: Great grandmother having lived beyond her life's meaning and significance, quietly lives on as though from a distant time. How does this translation sit with you, my teachers?

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anonymoose

The thing about literature is that you can write things that don't make sense, and make out as though it is the readers' fault if they can't understand.

 

I understand you wanting to give a more coherent English translation, but I think John Balcom's is good in that its incomprehensibility captures the style of the original.

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Lu
17 hours ago, anonymoose said:

The think about literature is that you can write things that don't make sense, and make out as though it is the readers' fault if the can't understand.

I'd be verrrry hesitant to accuse Bi Feiyu of this. I've translated a short story of his and while it was difficult and some of the sentences were an enormous struggle to translate into good Dutch, all of it made perfect sense.

 

太祖母超越了生命意义静立在时间的远方。
整整一个世纪的历史落差流荡在她生命的正面和背面。

Great-grandmother, having lived beyond meaning in life, stood quietly at the farther end of time.

A full century of ups and downs in history had drifted over the good and bad parts of her life.

 

That's ugly English, of course, and there are reasons I don't do literary translation into English. But this is basically what it says, in my opinion. I think the Balcom translation is pretty good.

 

What's 时间的远方? Perhaps it's the end of her life, or perhaps it means she has a mindset from a long time ago. 超越了生命意义 might mean that she has lived so long that nothing has meaning to her anymore, or that she doesn't see a point in living on, or that others don't see a point to her living on anymore. I haven't read the rest of the story, so I can only guess. All this is a matter of interpretation, and if someone doesn't like literature being difficult in this way, Bi Feiyu will probably not become their favourite author. Which is fine, we all have preferences, but if a reader doesn't understand Bi's writing, that's not because the meaning isn't there.

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Fred0

 Lips says 历史落差 should be read as one word. I ask, one word meaning what?  

 

I agree with Lu that we can assume that the sentence makes sense, even though its implications  are not going to be clear until the story progresses.

 

Lu's translation, "having lived beyond meaning in life"  seems much more meaningful in the context, and makes much more sense, than "has transcended the meaning of life."  I also agree with Lu that 时间的远方 has an ambiguous meaning that the story will clarify, but her comment that the phrase suggests that she has "a mindset from a long time ago," is very apt in the context. Maybe I would translate 在时间的远方 as  " (in or at) a distant place in time." 

 

历史落差 suggests history's disparities or inequities.    流荡 could be an adjective,suggesting history's downward "floating" or downward drift, or it could be a verb,  "floating in her life's..."   正面和背面.  "Ups and downs" is a workable translation here, but  one is also tempted to keep the image of "front and back,"  as of a coin's 
heads and tails" as you would say in English. So, maybe "floating in the heads and tails of life's chance events." (Is flipping a coin something that Chinese people do?)

 

Thank you, Lu for you valuable help.

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anonymoose
4 hours ago, Lu said:

I'd be verrrry hesitant to accuse Bi Feiyu of this. I've translated a short story of his and while it was difficult and some of the sentences were an enormous struggle to translate into good Dutch, all of it made perfect sense.

 

I was being tongue-in-cheek. What I really meant is that in literature, often things are written in such an abstract way that the meaning is left to subjective interpretation. Thus, Balcom did a good job in leaving the English open to as much interpretation as the original Chinese, rather than spelling out the precise meaning (which the author may or may not have intended) as the OP wanted to do.

 

But yes, I'm not a fan of literature, in any language.

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Publius

历史落差 is a noun. 流荡 is a verb. Is all I can say.

The original text makes sense only in a highly poetic and abstract way.

"Colorless green ideas sleep furiously" can make sense, if you apply abundant amount of imagination.

It's a grandiloquent style you can find in literary criticism or academic papers. Flashy words, in unusual combinations, only to make up for the lack of content.

Some people love it. But I suggest, don't waste your time parsing it.

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Fred0

My feeling is that what is open to subjective interpretation in literature is not the meaning of the sentence, but what the author means by that sentence. If an author writes for example, "I hate my life," what he means by that is open to subjective interpretation. Maybe he's joking, or being ironic. Maybe he's saying that just to pique the curiosity of the reader. Maybe he is truly on the point of despair. In that sense the meaning of the sentence is unclear, or abstract, as Anonymoose puts it. But, the sentence as an utterance in the English language has a precise meaning. The Chinese translation of the sentence should not further obscure that precise meaning. So the sense in which an English speaking reader would understand that sentence in ordinary daily speech, should be preserved in the translation. I don't imagine that a sophisticated writer and thinker,  which I assume Bi Feiyu to be, would have his narrator say "My great grandmother has transcended the meaning of life," unless his purpose is to make his narrator sound pretentious and silly. (...which of course could be the case, as I may discover as I continue to read.)

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Fred0

So Publius, if 历史落差 is a noun, what does it mean?  And if 流荡 is a verb, then who or what is floating, history or grandmother? 

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anonymoose
52 minutes ago, Fred0 said:

My feeling is that what is open to subjective interpretation in literature is not the meaning of the sentence, but what the author means by that sentence. If an author writes for example, "I hate my life," what he means by that is open to subjective interpretation.

 

There are different levels of this. What feeling the author is trying to convey by "I hate my life" is open to interpretation, but the literal meaning is unambiguous. On the other hand, I don't think 超越了生命意义静立在时间的远方 has a transparent literal meaning in the same way.

 

56 minutes ago, Fred0 said:

I don't imagine that a sophisticated writer and thinker,  which I assume Bi Feiyu to be, would have his narrator say "My great grandmother has transcended the meaning of life," unless his purpose is to make his narrator sound pretentious and silly. (...which of course could be the case, as I may discover as I continue to read.)

 

What sounds silly in one language, or one culture, may not do so in another. For example, there is a (Korean) martial art known as 花郞道, which is customarily translated into English as "The Way of the Flowering Manhood". I assume it doesn't sound as silly in Korean/Chinese as it does in English.

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Fred0

Thank you for taking the time to respond. I am glad to receive your thoughts. Actually, The Way of the Flowering Manhood doesn't sound silly to me at all. It sounds profound, and I would like to know more about it. But, I do see your point, and it is well taken. What I am trying to say is that if the sentence in it's original language does not have a transparent literal meaning, as you say, then the translated sentence should at least attempt to preserve that lack. In this case, "My grandmother has transcended the meaning of life," unfortunately does have a precise literal meaning. It is not ambiguous or allusive. It conveys a specific and precise idea. The idea, though, is silly. You can only transcend the meaning of life by finding the meaning of life. If the sentence said, My great grandmother has transcended the quotidian meaning of life, that would not be a silly sentence.  But, you could still not say that the sentence had a transparent literal meaning. 

 

Having read a bit further in the story, I am beginning to see that the pretentious tone of the narrator continues, and perhaps it will be that quality which the author means for us to see from this opening sentence. If that is the case, then Bolton's translation is brilliant, and I have to take back everything I have said about it.

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roddy
10 hours ago, Fred0 said:

You can only transcend the meaning of life by finding the meaning of life

Or deciding that it doesn't have one, or that it is no longer important to you. 
 

Quote

unless his purpose is to make his narrator sound pretentious and silly...

I am beginning to see that the pretentious tone of the narrator continues...

 

I've not read any more than you've posted here, but I suspect we have a combination of an author with a fondness for "metaphors indulgent" tackling somewhat philosophical themes of life, death, old age, history, rather than a narrator intended to be foolish. If you're not getting on with it, try something else if you can. But give him a chance, you don't win that many prizes easily.

 

Incidentally, this text comes from the book mentioned here. (Amazon) As noted, this is not your ordinary literary translation, it's intended to be of use to advanced students trying to follow the Chinese at the same time. And Fred, I suspect I've asked this before, but please by the name of all that's helpful, tell us where you're finding these things. Even if it's not relevant to answering the question, it's interesting. We like to know what people are reading and doing. Other people might join you. It reminds people that they've got that book on the shelf, or prompts someone else to buy it. 

 

For what it's worth, the sentences posted seem fine to me. Granny was old enough that she'd stepped back from life and taken a view of the whole process, rather than getting carried along by it. 

 

Edit: Same story has also been translated by Howard Goldblatt in Chairman Mao Would Not Be Amused if anyone's inspired enough...

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Lu
1 hour ago, roddy said:

I've not read any more than you've posted here, but I suspect we have a combination of an author with a fondness for "metaphors indulgent" tackling somewhat philosophical themes of life, death, old age, history, rather than a narrator intended to be foolish. If you're not getting on with it, try something else if you can. But give him a chance, you don't win that many prizes easily.

I agree. Bi Feiyu loves complicated metaphors, but he's also rightly respected as a great writer.

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Fred0

Thank you all for your comments and encouragement. I am reading this story from the first book that is referenced by Roddy above: New Penguin Parallel Text: Short Stories in Chinese. 

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陳德聰

I'm interested in how the translator translated the second sentence.

 

Edit: Nevermind, I found it and blech!

 

"Her life encompasses an entire century of history."

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Fred0

Yes, I agree. The most important words he avoided altogether. How would you translate that sentence?Lips says I should regard 历史落差 as one word, but neither he nor Publius has responded to my request for an explanation of what it means. And further does 流荡 refer to the great grandmother or to  history. And finally, how to treat 正面和背面.   

 

Here is my weak attempt: Through a whole century of decline, floating through  the things she had to face and the things that caught her from behind. 

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Publius

Okay, I'm gonna stick my neck out.

First off, the sentence doesn't make sense in any literal way. So we must think of it as an elaborate metaphor.

My understanding, which might not even be close to what the author had in mind, is like this:

Great grandmother's existence is like a giant rock, standing in the middle of a river called Time. Her life is so long that when the water flows from the backside of her (past) to the front where we are (present), a hundred years has passed, and it's a whole different time.

It's just my interpretation. And I'm not even sure in which direction the river flows. Could work both ways.

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Fred0

Dear Publius, This is a very cogent interpretation of the sentence which I would never have come up with. Thanks for sticking your neck out.

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陳德聰
On 2017/9/5 at 9:08 AM, Fred0 said:

整整一个世纪的历史落差流荡在她生命的正面和背面。

 

I stopped doing close readings when I left school but I can help you with parsing:

 

[ 整整一個世紀的 [ 歷史 [ 落差 ] ] ] <- subject is the difference (no negative connotation or implication that things have gotten worse) between the narrator's conception of grandma's present and some time a whole entire century prior.

 

That difference perhaps "flows" (like Publius's river), though I might ditch the water imagery altogether considering how the metaphor feels a bit like conceit (the bad kind) to me since... usually stuff 流蕩s in water or whatever fluid, but here it's doing it on some 正背面.

 

Grandma's 生命 apparently has a side that faces the narrator or the direction that the narrator's faces and a side that faces the other way, and that 落差 can be found traipsing around on both sides, which I guess should be obvious since you can't have a comparison without two things to compare but what does that look like even in an abstract sense? You could even take the 正面 and 背面 to mean the side that she presents to the world and the side that she doesn't.

 

So even though the imagery evoked seems to be that the history encompasses her life, I would be tempted to translate it as something like: "A century-wide divide awash in her past and present."

 

Thought  the reverse works too: "Her past and present awash in a century-wide divide."

 

Or skipping the water imagery but instead inserting a book metaphor (cause old people are like old books?): "An entire century of history traverses her life from front to back."

 

Or maybe just: "Her past and present a century apart."

 

I tend to prefer sentence fragments for poetic stuff because that's how I am, sorry if that offends anyone's sensibilities.

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Fred0

陳德聰, Your post is the illumination I have been hoping for. Your parsing of the sentence is excellent. It's because the sentence is poetic, or metaphorical, that understanding it is even more important than understanding the story.  Thank you.

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